It is probable that without the onstage presence of ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new show, Man in a Case, would draw a fraction of the audience this limited-run production is almost guaranteed to have. That would be a small tragedy. Presented by New York’s award-winning Big Dance Theater, Man in a Case—based on two lyrical short stories by Anton Chekhov—is a first-rate example of Big Dance’s idiosyncratic blend of theater, dance, music and multimedia visuals.
The lovely but oddly baffling show, both visually stark and emotionally rich, is a showcase of tiny moments, observations, glimpses of human heartache and visions that linger long after the short 75-minute work has ended.
On a mostly bare stage, the cast and crew chat at a table, on which sit microphones, props and two laptops, used to run the multiple sound effects and projections that co-directors Annie-B Parsons and Paul Lazar have layered over the body of the show. Chris Giarmo (the play’s music director) and co-director Lazar (sharp eyes will recognize him as the creepy entomologist from Silence of the Lambs) become a pair of hunters, Ivan and Burkin, casually swapping stories about turkey calling.
Baryshnikov—who turns out to have been sitting there all along—rises to tell his own amusing turkey-hunting story. The subject quickly changes from turkeys to missed opportunities in life, as the hunters take turns narrating two wafer-thin Chekhov tales of love almost gained but eventually lost.
In the first, performed amid a dreamlike blanket of projected images and choreographed movement, a repressed, overly cautious schoolteacher (Baryshnikov, at 70 still the definition of grace) finds himself falling for the sister (dancer Tymberly Canale) of the new history teacher (Aaron Mattocks). “We thought,” admits Burkin, “that a man who wears galoshes in all weather could never fall in love.” The trajectory of this almost-romance—which includes some beautiful courtship dancing and a spectacular slow-motion tumble down a flight of steps—is both sweet and sad.
The second, even slighter tale follows a decent, friendly farmer (Baryshnikov again) who secretly falls in love with the wife of his best friend. Little happens, but the concluding dance between the two never-to-be lovers, choreographed as a Busby Berkeley–like kaleidoscopic duet, is as tender and powerful a moment as anything that could be spoken with a thousand heartbroken words.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½