Bay Area / Tour Theater Review: MAN IN A CASE (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

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by Stacy Trevenon on January 29, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Tours

A CASE OF HIGH-TECH FUSION

This production is described by Berkeley Rep as “high-tech fusion” and that, I found, indeed is what it is. Two Anton Chekhov circa-1898 short stories, “Man in a Case” and “About Love,” are dovetailed together within a marriage of theatre, interpretive movement, dance, video and music. Add to that interpretations in culture and language, literary and visual contrasts within and beyond the script, and spatial elements explored in Peter Ksander’s soaring set.

The stories unfold across two separate areas of the stage. They are vastly different and might not complement each other anywhere other than in a Chekhov production. To the right is what might be a hunters’ cabin with a table and casual chairs, two of which are occupied by actors in bit parts manipulating sound and recording devices – but they fit right into the play. To the left is the Man in a Case’s home case, symbolically accessible through a series of bolts on the door and equipped with a sparse fold-down bed and a series of television screens that link him with the living world. Leading away and above these crucial areas are stairs rising to a walkway above which is used briefly and tellingly by characters in moments that make a point – underlining that life is about choosing among options – which I thought were beautifully done.

Tymberly Canale and cast in "Man in a Case."

That having been said, I found the stories – perhaps products of their time, the late 19th century – were a little thin on their own, only scratching so far the surface of the human condition. What might have been an otherwise unremarkable show rises to another level through the high degree of technology pervading the production, its remarkable cast and the presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov, known as a dancer but here exhibiting acting skills at least on a par.

Scene from "Man in a Case" with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

It’s all cached in engrossing character-driven acting by a sparse cast of characters. Two hunters (Chris Giarmo, Paul Lazar) while the time away by trading tales. At one end of their table sit a couple of guys manipulating sound and recording devices as part of the story. Skipping through the set on a bicycle is the vivacious Barbara (Tymberly Canale). Baryshnikov gives an understated but potent performance as Belikov, the Man in a Case and as a man reliving lost love. Rounding out the cast is Aaron Mattocks, with a memorable role as the woman’s brother.

Scene from "Man in a Case" with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The essence of the characters and their interactions are defined on many levels. Oana Botez’ costume colors give visual impact, from the hunters’ bright plaid jackets to the Man in a Case’s sunglasses and dark trenchcoat to the woman’s bright dress. Adding more character dimensions is sophisticated technology that duplicates the actors with doppelganger-like images that explore subtle underlying points (video design by Jeff Larson, lights by Jennifer Tipton).

Sometimes the interplay of all these elements can get a little whirlwind, and it is potentially easy to be overwhelmed and distracted from the stories. The technical wizardry comes dangerously close to overshadowing the actors and the human stories they are trying to tell. A saving grace lies in adapters and directors Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson: they just manage to strike the fine line between human story and high-tech gadgetry. A word to the viewer: key to this production is the performers, a necessary cornerstone. They capture their characters’ humanity, just discernable given Chekhov’s gift of nailing the human experience from the banal to the intense.

Tymberly Canale, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Aaron Mattocks in "Man in a Case."

The hunters impart an informal folksiness to their characters, grounding the stories amid their swirl of high-tech and interpretive elements. Canale masterfully skips from a carefree girl on a bicycle to woman wrestling with complex emotions. And I found it a joy to watch how Baryshnikov imparts meaning, context, emotion and connection to the big picture through the slightest of gestures. The flick of an eyebrow, the angle of body or leg, the tiniest shrug of a shoulder, a faint smile or absence thereof, all speak volumes, attesting to Baryshnikov’s mastery of not just movement but the stage actor’s craft. Of him, I expected nothing less, and I was not disappointed.

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Man in a Case."

Giarmo’s occasional vocals are haunting yet impactful, adding their own distinct dimension. The occasional juxtapositions of language and culture could have potentially been confusing if not distracting, but looked at it from a different angle, under these directors they emerge instead as definitions and intriguing extensions of the time and place.

At first the effect can be jarring – hearing familiar popular songs in another language, for example – but after a moment or two it becomes apparent that this is how it is in Chekhov’s story. An approach might be to fit it into the kaleidoscopic fabric of the story and enjoy the ride.

Tymberly Canale in "Man in a Case."photos by T. Charles Erickson

Man in a Case
Big Dance Theater and Baryshnikov Productions
in association with ArKtype
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck
scheduled to end on February 16, 2014
for tickets, call (510) 647-2949
or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

tour continues through May 18, 2014
for tour dates, visit ArKtype

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