Is it a play? Is it a musical? Is it performance art? Is it a staged version of a radio broadcast of two Chekhov short stories? If it stars Mikhail Baryshnikov, where is all the dancing? And why are all those people sitting at work tables behind computers and microphones on the stage?
Whatever you would like to call this contemporary mash-up of literature, drama, video, music, movement, sound, image and the spoken word, the world premiere of "Man in a Case" at Hartford Stage now through March 24 makes for an intriguing, ultimately irresistible evening of live performance and mixed media.
It seems clear that audiences came prepared the other evening to catch this performance. Quite a few people had reported reading the two Chekhov short stories in the days leading up to the production. Others recalled seeing Baryshnikov at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts a number of years ago in a drama-dance piece that combined elements from both genres to tell an evening length saga. Others were well aware that they were in for an unusual, unique experience and were open to the journey that the artistic team had prepared for us. And as the audience attuned themselves to the patterns, pacing and methods of the work, they found themselves by the end of the evening gripped and even moved by the events on stage.
"Man in a Case" represents a collaboration between the Russian born dancer and Big Dance Theater's Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, who were attracted by the Chekhov short story of the title and incorporated into the evening a second Chekhov story, "About Love," which provides an arresting contrast to the first work. Through the development process with the other members of the Big Dance Theater Company, they explored ways in which to combine their interests in performance with technology to create the tantalizing hybrid that resulted.
With the cast and two technicians seated around a rectangular work table at the beginning of the evening, two narrators emerge and soon don red plaid hunting jackets and guns to portray two hunters spending the day in a blind who begin to gossip about their neighbors in their Russian village, with the story of Belikov, the man in the case, taking shape. With his back to the audience, the white shirted Baryshnikov stands up and assumes the role of the titular character, a quiet, middle-aged tightly wound teacher whose inability to express his feelings not only alienates him from his co-workers but tragically distances himself from a woman he loves. The two hunters reinvent themselves as two of Belikov's colleagues who subtly try to encourage him to act on his feelings for the young woman, Barbara, the sister of a newly-hired teacher at their school.
The tale is told through photographic slides, super-titles, carefully devised movement and even a semi-realistic set (designed by Peter Ksander) that represents Belikov's chambers in a boarding house. That the room contains anachronistic multiple television monitors that show news accounts, old photos and even real time coverage of Belikov preparing for bed contributes even more food for thought to the proceedings.
A variety of stage images provide special delights here, including a bicycle ridden out into the audience by the carefree Barbara, the lowering of curtains around a canopy bed, and a sudden profusion of opened umbrellas. The worktable is called into service several times as a dinner table, again with carefully crafted motions signifying eating along with a strategically placed video of the main entrée. Even the two on-stage technicians are called into service as the characters engage in what starts out as a folk dance, but as many of the dances and songs in this work do, morphs easily into something slightly different and in some cases modern.
The sad but moving conclusion to this story is followed by a recollection by a renewed Baryshnikov of a past, unrequited love, adapted from "About Love," that tells of a man's affair with a married woman that is never consummated. A bit brighter than "Man in a Case," this story is nonetheless tinged in sadness, emphasized by a wistful pas-de-deux between Baryshnikov and Tymberly Canale that takes place with both lying flat on the stage floor, while their movements are displayed on a large screen as caught from directly above.
Lights, sound, music and video play as important roles as do the performers on stage, with each element timed and choreographed to serve as an integral component of the overall experience. Jennifer Tipton's lighting, Tei Blow's sound design, Jeff Larson's video creations and Chris Giarmo's music direction are deployed effectively and easily throughout. Even Oana Botez's precise and attractive costumes, a mix of contemporary and period, have been crafted to be changed and added relatively unobtrusively as the characters switch roles, identities and even centuries without disruption.
The lanky, red-headed Giarmo also plays one of the hunters who morphs into one of Belikov's teaching colleagues will play his guitar and sing every once in a while, demonstrating a voice that is also quite compelling as one of the evening's narrators. Jess Barbagallo doubles or actually triples similarly, with an equally effective voice that results at times in having her and Giarmo sound like NPR commentators. Canale, as previously mentioned, conveys Barbara's fickleness and immaturity well, while remaining poised yet vulnerable as the married lover. Aaron Mattocks brings a seething sullenness to his portrayal of Kovlenko, Barbara's justifiably overprotective older brothers.
Sound effects are produced live on stage by one of the technicians. His presence is occasionally used to comic effect as when the foley artist seems to deliberately defy the anticipated response to a character's actions or words. The other technician moves about the back of the stage rolling down or up various screens on which a photograph, a few words or a video will be displayed, being sure to never leave an empty screen visible to the audience.
Baryshnikov is of course the big draw and he infuses his characters with an unexpected modesty and grace, and in "Man in a Case" with a bit of stoic foolishness. As the suitor of the married lover, he is a bit more lively, but his sense of frustration and resignation can be palpably felt.
While there is not a lot of outright dancing per se, one appreciates the carefully modulated movement that dominates nearly every scene. It may take a while to enter the special world created by Parson and Lazar, but the end result is a unique experience that continually piques your interest while revealing new and effective ways to capture a narrative.