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Theater Review: “Man in a Case” at Shakespeare Theatre

Mikhail Baryshnikov is captivating in this whimsical adaptation of two short stories by Chekhov.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, and Aaron Mattocks in Man in a Case. Photograph by T. Charles Erickson.

For such a slight show, Man in a Case packs an extraordinary amount into its 75-minute running time, beginning with a heated discussion on the best way to kill a turkey (timely, given the time of year) and ending with a heartbreaking, mostly wordless exploration of the transience of love and life. And yes, Mikhail Baryshnikov dances, although perhaps not in a way that does justice to his status as the greatest ballet performer of our time.

The show, adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar and choreographed by Parson, is based on two short stories by Chekhov: the titular tale of a repressed and fearsome schoolmaster, and “About Love,” in which a man recalls how he fell in love with a married woman, only to lose her forever. Parson and Lazar have taken both and crafted a sensational fusion of music, movement, video, and sound that demonstrates how captivating experimental theater can be, both incorporating the elements of traditional storytelling and surpassing them altogether.

Baryshnikov plays Belikov, a teacher of Greek at odds with modernity who terrifies his colleagues while also attempting to be cordial to them. The production is broken into chapters with the titles projected onstage; in “The Faculty Meeting” a video shows schoolgirls congregating around a staircase on an endless loop, and in “The Visit,” Baryshnikov’s face is filmed and simultaneously projected so that it appears like the video link from a doorbell’s security camera. The show says more about surveillance and paranoia in a few scenes than most pundits can communicate in thousands of words—Belikov retires to his house, where the door has a comical number of bolts on it, and then enshrines himself away from the world in a rectangular bed surrounded by white drapes. “By forever praising the past, he was simply trying to justify his horror of reality,” says a narrator.

Baryshnikov’s voice might be faint, even with the microphone he wears, but his physicality is, unsurprisingly, magnetic. He tumbles backward down a staircase with the grace of a cat, and his extraordinarily expressive face communicates all the radically novel feelings Belikov has when he encounters the free-spirited Barbara (the versatile Tymberly Canale). Projections accompanied by the unmistakable rasp of a Polaroid camera reveal him smiling throughout their courtship, a man transformed by possibility. The poignancy is heightened by music director and performer Chris Giarmo’s accompaniments (he sings a number at the end that’s Bon Iver-beautiful), as well as by the incongruous but lovely inclusion of offbeat songs like Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again,” enhanced by a giant mirrorball that descends from above.

The cast also includes Aaron Mattocks as Kovalenko, Barbara’s Ukrainian brother, and Jess Barbagallo as Burkin, who seems to share narrator duties with Giarmo’s Ivan. Costume designer Oana Botez puts those three characters in red-toned plaid shirts and traditional Slavic costumes, all the better to contrast with Belikov’s buttoned-up black suit and military-style overcoat and Barbara’s pink lace dress. Set designer Peter Ksander hints at Belikov’s barren life by crafting his apartment out of identical leather books and dark wood hues. The only picture hanging is an eye-test poster, in a nod to the character’s literal and symbolic shortsightedness.

“About Love” is much shorter, but no less moving. Canale plays the married woman whom Baryshnikov’s character falls in love with, and their romance plays out from a variety of different (physical) angles, with cameras filming them from the side as they sit at a table and from above in the show’s final scene, their bodies contorting into different shapes like the hands of a clock. Endlessly original, deeply moving, and very clever, Man in a Case pushes the boundaries of what art can communicate and create.

Man in a Case is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 22. Running time is about one hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($45 to $105) are available via Shakespeare’s website.