What's in a name? Well in this case it's Mikhail Baryshnikov, who attracted a large excited crowd on February 27, opening night of “Man in a Case.” Known affectionately by his nickname, Misha, this great Russian ballet dancer and choreographer defected to the West in 1974 and became a U.S. Citizen in 1986. His excellent reputation precedes him. Now 65 years old--isn't that a shock? --he is exploring new paths in dance, theater and music and video with a group called Big Dance Theater. Adapted and directed by Annie B. Parson and Paul Lazar, their newest most imaginative project, presented in a World Premiere by Hartford Stage, a little over an hour long, it is entitled “Man in a Case” and is adapted from two stories from Anton Chekhov.
Minimalism and organic naturalness are the lynchpins here. The slowly-unfolding opening scene appears to be more a rehearsal than a performance. The stage set by Peter Ksander, lit darkly by Jennifer Tipton, is stripped down to bare bones and the technicians, seated at a long table, with only a samovar as accent, are doing their thing right on stage with the actors. Grey curtains cover the back wall and large video projection screens designed by Jeff Larson are pulled down in front of them when needed. Video projections also emanate from other places, like surprisingly from beneath a desk.
In the first work, two hunters, Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo, also the music director, imitate animal sounds, while reminiscing about an uptight, judgmental man in their town called Belikov, who scared everyone. When this teacher of Greek, played by Baryshnikov, dressed severely in a long black coat and stiff hat (Costume: Oana Botez), comes to visit, the men are intimidated and cleverly all comb their hair at the same time. When Belikov goes home, he releases many locks on the door and climbs into a pull-out bed that springs from the wall and is encased in a curtain. His friends want him to marry a new woman (Tymberle Canale) who has come to town, but her brother has a ferocious temper and beats Belikov down the stairs, after Belikov criticizes his sister's bicycle riding. Here again, the special effects, are interesting, as we look at Belikov falling backwards.
The second play is a beautiful piece, all about love between an unmarried man and a married woman (Baryshnikov and Canale). A young man has come to a farm to work; he meets a wealthy family in town and they take him in as if he were family. His love for the wife is so intense that at the time of their departure for another town, he is devastated. She is too, and the pas de deux they perform is exquisite. It is not traditional ballet, but mesmerizing modern dance that begins on the floor, and uses hands and fingers, every part of their bodies to express their deep love for each other.
I wish that “Man in a Case” could have included an intermission and one more piece.
“A Man in a Case” will play through March 24 at Hartford Stage.