Entertainment » Theatre

Man in a Case

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 28, 2014
Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov star in ’Man in a Case,’ through March 2 art Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov star in ’Man in a Case,’ through March 2 art Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Anton Chekhov hardly needs any help when it comes to the creation of penetrating plays about love, existential anxiety, and the absurdities of human politics. That said, however, this scintillating synthesis of two Chekhov stories -- "The Man in the Case" and "About Love" -- has great fun with the possibilities of the contemporary stage, which Chekhov's work itself helped make possible, pushing the envelope of the theatrical form in his own time.

"Man in a Case," the work of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theater, with choreography by Parson, continues at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 2. The play... "theater piece" might be a better word for it... is like a sizzling spark of ball lightning rolling around at the intersection of dance and theater; Jennifer Tipton's inventive lighting and over-emphasized sound effects designed by Tei Blow underscore the comedy and drama of the piece, and highly stylized movement throughout provides a context for the piece's dance sequences.

There's also quite a lot of video projection, designed by Jeff Larson and Keith Skretch, some of it showing the action live as it happens, and some of it used to illustrate a mood (a fork worrying a plate of food during a visit suffocated with anxiety) or expand a setting (a film snippet panning across a gathering of people in period dress). More playful are the "snapshots" that capture moments of romance between Belikov and the object of his affection; with precise timing and the physical confidence of dancers, the performers strike poses that match previously-taken photos.

The piece benefits from the support of Baryshnikov Productions and, better still, the star power of legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who plays the part of an instructor of ancient languages named Belikov. This is the titular "Man in a Case," which is to say, a man who has ensconced himself in a shell of rigid propriety rooted in rules and the fear of transgression. So upright, stiff, and proper is Belikov that he makes everyone around him uptight with a preemptive horror of possible mistakes or offense; no one can relax with him around, or share an unguarded moment.

Needless to say, this isolates Belikov, thrusting him all the more deeply into his private warren of public manners and private terror. When love appears, it's in the form of a young woman (Tymberly Canale) who has come to the dreary city where Belikov lives; cheerful and immune to his gloomy correctness, she's a ray of light that pierces the social and political pall. Her brother (Aaron Mattocks), too, is a free spirit -- though of a somewhat rougher character. The question is whether love will prove transformative to Belikov, or whether he's become so ossified and restricted with his own fearful need for absolute order that it's love that will blink first.

Belikov's story is offset by another narrative, again of love and the hazards that threaten to snuff its promise; Baryshnikov and Canale are, once more, the couple at the heart of the story, and it's here that Baryshnikov dances. It's not a lot of dance -- but it's executed with such grace as to remind one of the star's formidable skills. It's also the high point of this second story, which is more like a fragment in comparison to the first play, which holds place of pride as the evening's main event.

The production is brief, clocking in at about an hour and a quarter, but it makes an impression. This hour-plus (which, it should be noted, is part of the ArtsEmerson "World on Stage" series) boasts some lovely stuff, including lively, moody music (Chris Giarmo oversees music direction; he also plays accordion live on stage), as well as some gorgeous, perfectly suited costuming by Oana Botez, and tightly minimal but effective scenic design by Peter Ksander.

The effect is of something unfolding in a timeless place -- a place without locale, where the production's carefully honed anachronisms fit together with the seamless luster of a dream.

"Man in a Case" features Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, Paul Lazar and Aaron Mattocks. Performances continue through March 2 at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, located at 210 Tremont Street in the theater district. For tickets ($25 -$89) and more information, visit www.artsemerson.org or call 617?824?8400.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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