For top honors in this year’s contest for most ironic casting decision, I nominate Mikhail Baryshnikov, playing the role of a man who refuses to dance.
Would seem a waste of a powerful pair of legs, wouldn’t it? In point of fact, “Man in a Case” — a visually arresting performance piece that becomes mired at times in arty display — remains an engaging showcase for Baryshnikov’s kinetic gifts. Even when the great ballet star of yore is merely seated at a table, there’s evidence of the grace of that taut, athletic frame.
This short evening from the choreographic studio of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar distills two little-known short stories by Anton Chekhov into a multimedia rumination on too much living by the rules, and not enough by the heart. Stopping at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through Dec. 22, the show mingles a storytelling style stressing spareness over exuberance, with its star’s trademark magnetic vigor. The result is often fascinating, even if it runs on the dry side.
Joined onstage by a half-dozen other musicians, dancers and actors, Baryshnikov has an offhand relationship with the acting facet of “Man in a Case”: He speaks his lines with a paucity of inflection and his handsome face rarely shows much expression. His quiet delivery — amplified, thank goodness — conforms to the production’s deadpan feeling, as well as to the stifled personality of the character he chiefly embodies, a tyrannically proper schoolmaster named Belikov.
Belikov is the “Man in a Case.” (That’s the title of the first of two stories adapted and directed by Parson and Lazar; the second is called “About Love.”) His philosophy for life seems to be to avoid living at all costs. Invited to a party with some colleagues, he encounters a vivacious young woman (the excellent Tymberly Canale) who lives as much outside the box as he does in it. He’s beseeched to join the revelers in a twirling line dance, but he can’t bring himself to commune with the others so flagrantly. We get the clever additional level on which this works: One of the world’s most accomplished dancers is the only figure who doesn’t kick up his heels.
The scene, like others, is embroidered by film and videos, projected onto doors and tablecloths, as well as retractable screens. (In this particular instance, the companion visual is a black-and-white film of ordinary people at some kind of public event dancing in similar circular fashion.) Belikov’s dreary flat, meanwhile, is envisioned by set designer Peter Ksander as a stark chamber filled with televisions that broadcast the teacher’s greatest terror, of not garnering respect, of being the village laughingstock. After a curtain is drawn each night around his bed, the fabric comes alive with one of Ksander and video designer Jeff Larson’s most inspired ideas: the conjuring of Belikov’s nightmares.
Even more compelling is a noir-ish sequence in which Belikov scales a monumental staircase and, overcome by the grief of his perceived humiliations, he takes a slow-motion tumble down the steps, a scene we observe, simultaneously, from other perspectives via video.
In lieu of a swirling Baryshnikov, Parson — who recently choreographed “Here Lies Love,” the hit off-Broadway musical by David Byrne about Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos — gives us a hand-jiving Baryshnikov. Watching him at a table, executing the peculiar, thrusting gestures of Belikov’s militaristic regimen, is riveting. There’s a depth of commitment and precision in this movement that imbues it with a mesmerizing beauty.
The sharpness of this choreography is contrasted by the actors’ casual demeanor, particularly by the two in plaid flannel shirts (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo) who portray a pair of friends in a hunting party. Their job is to introduce each of the stories; one of the weaknesses of “Man in a Case” is that their relationship to what goes on remains confoundingly obscure. The second story also features at its center a man played by Baryshnikov, this one a local landowner in love with a married woman, who lets an opportunity for happiness slip from his grasp.
“Man in a Case” needn’t slip from yours. It’s likely that whatever gaps exist, you’ll care less about the missing flesh on the bones of the narrative than you will in getting to see Baryshnikov in the flesh.
adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/ Big Dance Theater. Choreography, Parson. Set, Peter Ksander; costumes, Oana Botez; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Tei Blow; video, Jeff Larson; music director, Chris Giarmo. With Aaron Mattocks, Keith Skretch. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $45-$105. Through Dec. 22 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.