|Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: T. Charles Erickson|
By Lauren Yarger and Anton Chekhov
Dramatic music plays, people talk in short sentences expressing their deepest feelings, video mimics what is happening on stage – or the stage action depicts what already has happened – in an atmosphere that feels depressing and foreign. We have stepped into the world premiere of Man in a Case starring former ballet-sensation-turned-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov at Hartford Stage.
Lauren: Wait a minute, Anton. Are we at the right theater? Almost avant-garde at Hartford Stage? I really hate avante-garde. (And don’t tell Anton, but I’m not a big Chekhov fan either, so this is a double whammy.)
Chekhov: Allow yourself to explore the possibilities beyond traditional storytelling, Lauren Yarger. I am a master at that, you know.
Adapters and Directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar use video surveillance footage (designed by Jeff Larson), folk dance (choreographed by Parson) and music (Giarmo whips out an accordion and sings in an unexpected tenor) to tell two stories by Anton Chekhov. They are told by two hunters (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo -- who also designs the sound) who talk late into the night (their flannel plaid shirts designed by Oana Botez turn out to be one of the easiest things to understand during the presentation).
Chekhov: The idea is to create “a bridge between our time and that of these two 19th-century, anti-love stories,” as clearly stated in the press release, Lauren Yarger.
Lauren: I confess that I wouldn’t have been able to report most of that – or even that there are two separate stories – without information provided in the press release.
Story number one is about Belikov, (Baryshnikov) an unpopular teacher of Greek in one of the hunter’s Russian towns, whom he recalls as a lover of rules and regulations. Everyone is afraid of him.
“Belikov displayed an impulse to wrap himself in a covering, to make a shell or case for himself which would isolate him and protect him from reality. And he tried to hide his thoughts also in a case.”
Chekhov: Such beautiful language. Such realism in a metaphor!
Lauren: Oh, so that’s what the title means. I didn’t really get that, even though the play includes a lot of dialogue including what was just quoted. Thank goodness I have access to the script – and you, dear Anton
Belikov finally finds a reason to open the multi-locked door to his drab, book-lined apartment filled with televisions allowing him to keep a watchful eye (designed by Peter Ksander). It’s lovely, outgoing Ukrainian beauty Barbara (Tymberly Canale), whom he meets at a faculty party she attends with her brother, Kovaenko (Aaron Mattocks).
Chekhov: I enjoy exploring their relationship develop, Belikov’s reaction to his feelings and his inability to tolerate being mocked.
Lauren: Yes, but we have to sit through more conversation between the hunters about their guns and discussion among characters about whether they are eating mutton or onions for dinner. This kind of thing really drives me nuts, Anton.
The second story involves a man who forgoes his love for Anna Alexyevna (also Baryshnikov and Canale). Their growing affection cannot be, for Anna will not forsake her husband and children – all of whom are like family to the man. They are forced to part.
Chekhov: How sad. The unending well of emotion dug by unfulfilled longings.
Lauren: Kind of like what the audience was feeling, I think, Anton. Exiting audience members were asking of each other, “What was that about?” And many wished they could have seen Baryshnikov dance a little. Especially when ticket prices top out at $116.
Chekhov: He does dance.
Baryshnikov does perform a little shuffle to some jazz music (there’s even a Carly Simon number in this presentation if you can believe it) and he also takes a few steps in a Ukrainian folk dance number, but it’s a tease to anyone hoping that a leap or some ballet might be found somewhere in a show produced by Baryshnikov and featuring members of a company called Big Dance Theater.
At the end of the second story, Baryshnikov and Canale perform some movement together on the floor depicting the yearning of the couple and their inability to consummate their relationship. It’s appealing and mimicked on the video screen.
Chekhov: The raw emotion, the grace of the movement is riveting. The moment when the man realizes how unnecessary, how petty, and illusory all those considerations were that had frustrated their love: it made me weep with emotion.
Lauren: I’m happy for you, Anton, but I wanted to weep with frustration. All of the best intentions don’t matter when the audience doesn’t get what they just saw. The hour-and-15-minute presentation without intermission amazingly seemed to drag. Even the lighting (designed by Jennifer Tipton) annoyed me. I’m sure your fans and/or lovers of avante-garde will deem it significant, revealing and clever. To me, everything was just too dark.
Chekhov: Darkness is appropriate for themes of disillusionment, failed ideas, profound tragedy, cultural futility and government tyranny.
Lauren: There were some things I did enjoy: The two hunters imitating turkeys, relentless laughter that poisons a man’s soul, interaction with the sound guy located on stage, and that nifty fall down some stairs. But I must confess, overall, I wasn’t moved. And, yes, I would have liked to see Baryshnikov dance at least a little.
Chekhov: You are too bound by tradition, my peasant friend. I enjoyed the boldness of the effort, the willingness to think outside of the box.
Lauren: I'm going to head up to UConn tonight for CT Rep's presentation of His Girl Friday. Girl gets engaged, ex-husband is jealous, journalism careers get in the way. Now there's a story I can relate to.
Man in a Case runs through March 24; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Stay/Play performance March 13 at 6:30 pm; Matinees Sundays and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets $36.50-$116.50 (860) 527‐5151; www.hartfordstage.org.
Thanks so much for your review, Lauren. I saw this play with no expectations (including a dancing Baryshnikov) and found it by turns puzzling and insightful. Turns out we had seen something by Big Dance Theater last summer at Jacob's Pillow, noted the similarities, and then finally read the program and realized the reason why!
I really enjoyed parts of the production. Two questions I was left with include: 1) Were all the funky parts window dressing to shore up a couple of stories that would otherwise not be of interest? and 2) Are the dance/music/video bits simply random or do they have an organic relation to the play?
But congrats to Hartford Stage for doing something so off-the-beaten-Broadway path. I thought I was at TheatreWorks!
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