What do Mikhail Baryshnikov, turkey-hunting, a disco ball, and Chekhovian repression-obsession-depression have in common?
Big Dance Theater is more theater than dance, and in the avant-garde "Man in a Case", much is dance movement and mere gesture, combined with video and music.
So don't expect any Nutcracker-turned-prince or Don Quixote pas de deux, although Baryshnikov's two Chekhovian characters are about as lucky in love as the Don was. And the two roles are also the antithesis of Baryshnikov's character Aleksandr Petrovsky, egocentric lover of Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City".
However, the world's greatest living ballet dancer does do a few steps to that Czarist hit "St. Louis Blues"; a bit of a Russian folk dance; a couple of jumping jacks; two leg stretches; and even a somersault backward down several stairs. But no jetés, grand or otherwise.
(You want ballet? Get thee to the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet, where he performed and choreographed for years after defecting from the Soviet Union in 1974.)
In fact, when Baryshnikov first appears onstage at the STC's Lansburgh Theatre, the audience doesn't even seem to notice, much less applaud. Anything but Apollo, he's a "little bent figure" with a "pale little face like a polecat's". Who cares?
Baryshnikov as Belikov is the absolute embodiment of a man encased.
Belikov, a teacher of ancient Greek, has a "constant and insurmountable impulse to wrap himself in a covering...a case which would isolate him and protect him from external influences," says the androgynous radio commentator (Jess Barbagallo, who also plays Burkin).
But Belikov's many encasements can't prevent him from almost marrying the ebullient, ribald Barbara (Tymberly Canale), "a regular sugar plum, so sprightly, so noisy...a new Aphrodite."
Barbara exclaims, "Why is everyone here so glum, so bored?" (She could ask the same of the audience, although many come to life eventually.)
She brightens things with her folk dancing, shocking people by riding a bicycle, and carping bellicosely at her domineering brother Kovalenko (Aaron Mattocks).
But a humiliating caricature of Barbara and Belikov in bed ends their courtship and his life. He retreats to his coffin-like canopied bed, where he dies of shame.
"To bury people like Belikov is a great pleasure," a commentator says. But a week later, life resumed being "gloomy, oppressive, and senseless...how many men in cases were left, how many more of them will be."
With that, and with no intermission, the next man in a case appears in Chekhov's "About Love". A farmer's tender and deep love for a married woman is also suppressed and doomed -- typical of lovers created by this master short story writer and playwright.
The farmer notes, "We did not confess our love to each other, but timidly and jealously concealed it, afraid to reveal our secret to ourselves."
When his lover boards a train, he follows her into the compartment, where they finally kiss and weep.
Baryshnikov and Canale lie on the floor, her right leg touches his waist, then she spreads her legs, and then her arms, which she waves as if a swan almost in flight. Their bodies are projected onto a screen, and superimposed over a video of train tracks seen from a speeding train.
This riveting moment epitomes the poignancy and elegance of Chekhov's writing, and is the highlight of the inventive adaptation.
"Love is a great mystery, a series of questions that remain unanswered," a commentator says.
A series of questions remain about this unique interpretation. Do the anachronisms update or upend; enhance or detract from Chekhov's late-19th century short stories?
- Belikov flashes a Winston Churchill "V" for victory sign with the left hand, but the right hand quickly pulls it down, somewhat like Dr. Strangelove and the Nazi salute.
- The technique of radio commentators as narrators. The first story's actual hunters are re-imagined as sports commentators describing shooting turkeys with M-1 rifles and other weapons of major destruction. The radio narrators even gobble intermittently.
Apt or not, the ESPN-esque commentators hugely enliven the show. One is played by music director Chris Giarmo, who also plays the accordion, and the role of Ivan.
- Reminiscent of old radio shows, a sound man on stage provides sound effects. Even when the actors stop breaking things at a fractious dinner, the sound man continues making crashing noises. Baryshnikov/Belikov looks askance at the sound man, who shrugs, mugs, and smiles. The audience chuckles a bit.
- Speaking of sounds, the sounds of music like "St. Louis Blues" in the performance, and pop tunes like "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me..." warbled by Dusty Springfield pre-performance, rankle some audience members, and bemuse others.
- Ditto the glittering disco ball that drops just after Barbara bemoans the glumness.
It's an experiment, stupid.
But there's no question that the drama's intensity and complexity are heightened and deepened by the videos, designed by Jeff Larson, and the lighting by Jennifer Tipton, award-winning lighting designer for dance, opera, and theater.
Blinding lights blink as numerous harsh, blurred images flash onto various TV and other screens when the commentator notes, "Belikov was terrified." So were audience members.
A video of his students climbing stairs again and again underscores the repetitiveness, obsessiveness, going-nowhere-ness of the Greek teacher.
This haunting, at times humorous, and oh so human work, is presented by Baryshnikov Productions.
A special night of this very special production will be "A Russian Evening" Dec. 11. Following the performance, Baryshnikov and the cast and creative team will join audience members for caviar, vodka, blintzes, pierogi, and live Russian entertainment.
As the Russian saying goes, "May we suffer as much sorrow as drops of wine we are about to leave in our glasses."
For more info: "Man in a Case", Shakespeare Theatre Company, www.shakespearetheatre.com, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-547-1122. Through Dec. 22. STC won the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Big Dance Theater, www.bigdancetheater.org.