Renowned performer Mikhail Baryshnikov returns to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a stunning theatrical presentation of “Man in a Case” — a visually stirring work that takes from Anton Chekhov’s library of short stories and is served up on stage as a techno-fusion piece of performance art.
Two hunters set the scene as they trade Russian country tales on a particularly trite hunting trip. The first story bares the same name as the play and tells of a misanthropic professor by the name of Belikov (Baryshnikov), whose romantic pursuit of a young woman (Tymberly Canale) ends in utter humiliation and despair — as most Chekhovian tales do. Juxtaposing the title story is an emotionally riveting “About Love,” in which Baryshnikov portrays a lonely man who revisits a tale of lost love.
In 2012, Baryshnikov made his company debut playing a former White Russian general, Nikolai Platonovich, in the visually experimental and highly lauded “In Paris.” This time around, the performance legend stars as the central character in each of the Chekhovian stories told — and does so glowingly. Baryshnikov is strikingly magnetic in his latest. Perhaps it is the way he speaks his roles in that familiar, melodic Russian accent, or it is the way the former dancer moves about the stage — in any case, it is impossible to take your eyes off of the actor whenever he is present.
To say that this work is simply a play does not do it justice — “Man in a Case” is everything from a light show to a dance performance, with some singing added in as well.
Much of the production’s appeal is owed to the creative team and its creation of a multifaceted stage design that both exceeds the level of contemporary theatrics and yet carries an air of old Russian charm.
Peter Ksander’s set design is simplistic in its foundation but neoteric and fantastically complex in its execution. Half of the stage holds several tables that are used as set pieces for particular story scenes, as well as storytelling stations for the narrators with computers, record players and all sorts of modern devices to assist in the narration. The other half of the stage boasts an esoteric clutter on television screens arranged in a somewhat geometric manner that conjures a “Big Brother”-esque feel when the screens come to life. Each component of the stage, however simple it may be, is mobile and versatile. Not only do the components work as mix-and-match pieces fitted for each story being told, they also make up much of the movement that takes place on stage.
Additionally, Jeff Larson’s video design and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design work to complement the blend of cultures that come into play in the production. Videos are shown prior to the start of each scene and at the introduction of each new character, which plays out like an old-school polaroid snapshot — cleverly pairing the old with the new.
The effectiveness of the lighting design is most notable in a scene from the titular story when Belikov finds himself tumbling down an elongated staircase while flashes of light are implemented to elicit a cathartic, strobing effect of contemporary grandeur.
“Man in a Case,” conceived by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Obie-winning Big Dance Theater, is made up of numerous contradicting elements that work together to create a new-age narrative of sorts that can be quite confusing at many moments yet manages to evoke emotion throughout its entirety. The mood and tone of the piece is classic Chekhovian with a hint of contemporary humor; these aspects, however, are matched with a range of visually and aurally pleasing aesthetics on a modern caliber.