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T. Charles Erickson

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tymberly Canale perform as Belikov and Barbara in Man in a Case, an experimental theater piece based on two short stories written by Anton Chekhov, and directed by Big Dance Theater’s Annie B-Parson and Paul Lazar.

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★★✩✩✩

Man in a Case

Feb. 25 – March 2

Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre

By Baryshnikov Productions

Adapted and Directed by Annie-B Parson & Paul Lazar

Choreographed by Annie-B Parson

Featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, and Aaron Mattocks

Adapted from two Stories by Anton Chekov

Running Time: 75 minutes

Man in a Case is an adaptation of two of Chekov’s lesser-known tales, “Man in a Case” and “About Love,” currently hosted by the always-improving ArtsEmerson.

The entire play is staged on a single austere set, impossible to date, but hinting at Russia in the 19th century. This one set serves the purposes of both stories, utilizing well-choreographed blocking to transition seamlessly from scene to scene.

Naïvely perhaps, I was hoping to see Mikhail Baryshnikov, the legendary Russian ballet dancer, do more flashy jumps and pirouettes, but there were few such displays. Instead, the dancer-turned-actor relied on his facial expressions and body gestures to convey the subject of both stories. Baryshnikov stars as a hard-hearted, rule-loving teacher with a terribly intimidating presence in “Man in a Case,” the story of a reclusive and withdrawn man who falls in love with an ebullient, vivacious woman. In “About Love,” he is a man who relinquishes his deep, impossible love with a married woman. Baryshnikov is swift, his grace hard to hide, and his expressive face discloses all you need to know. He does let us enjoy a few moments of his amazing moves, but always in context, measured, and never indulging.

The rest of the play required more Chekovian pauses and subtleties to express its themes. Chekov’s stories are, if anything, moving, but instead I watched a whimsical play that prioritizes style over substance. Man in a Case is a strange combination of dance, theater, live processed video, and odd sound design, which never quite mesh. It is not the combination of media that gives the play an unusual tone. Rather, Baryshnikov Productions’ take on the use of media feels quite antiquated and never completely justified.

The set was equipped with gratuitous school-style projection screens that rolled down from walls and underneath tables, displaying the footage obtained with surveillance cameras mounted all across the stage. While the sound design had a comedic spirit, it was taken a bit too far. Stage left, though, was made into the compact bedroom of an older bachelor and was delightful in its warm tidiness. It successfully evoked the spirit of a maniacal school teacher with a comical number of door bolts and a bed like a cocoon for a lonely soul.

Tymberly Canale brings a good deal of energy to the stage, as do the rest of the cast, with nice little snippets of delightful song and dance. But I kept longing for some Chekovian feeling instead of crowd-pleasing folk merriness. Maybe I just didn’t get the play. After it received a standing ovation from the mostly Russian audience, I felt like I might have just missed the point.