‘Man in a Case’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg

THREE STARS
It is one thing to amble through a modern art gallery and appreciate an innovative multimedia installation—some videos and audio here, some projections and lighting effects there, perhaps some human performers moving and speaking with random disjunction and non sequitur connotation. One is at liberty in such esoteric circumstances to  interpret free-associatively, to mentally assemble one’s own connective thematic meaning. Or not. A multimedia art installation makes no claim on our participation other than that we show up. We need follow no storytelling. We need engage with no characters’ emotions or continuity. We need have no particular experience at all, actually, because our experience is not the installation’s raison d’être. It’s all about the artist’s vision and expression—which exists in that physical space on its own self-sufficient definitional terms even after-hours when the gallery is empty.

But it’s quite another thing to sit expectantly through all these media techniques deployed in an experimental work of live theater as they are in Man in a Case, the much-touted touring vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov now on exhibit at Lansburgh Theater.

Man in a Case comes to town courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Presentation Series, which  has imported such superb and unforgettable international productions as Black Watch from Scotland and Mies Julie from South Africa. STC’s curration of this series has been inspired. Its imprimatur is like a Good Theater Seal of Approval that pretty much guarantees a peak experience of a profound or provocative stage event.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in 'Man in a Case.' Photo: by T. Charles Erickson.
Mikhail Baryshnikov in ‘Man in a Case.’ Photo: by T. Charles Erickson.

The marquee name Baryshnikov may have been good enough reason to book Man in a Case. And indeed, Baryshnikov’s fans (of whom I am one) will be keen to see what he’s up to here. It’s a project that’s certainly adventurous and nervy. Reportedly Baryshnikov as a youth in Russia loved reading Chekhov and, vividly remembering some short stories, initiated a collaboration based on them with the innovative Obie Award-winning directing team Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theater. They have surrounded him with Peter Ksander’s spectacularly eclectic set, Oana Botez’s wild melange of period costumes and modern dress, Tei Blow’s extravagantly jolting sound design, Jennifer Tipton’s sometimes disorienting lighting design, and Jeff Larson’s surreal video designs. And though they have given Baryshnikov a smattering of dance moves—including a brief but elegantly pleasant soft shoe routine—they have focused his portrayal on two similar characters, one from each of two stories, which segue one into the other, with supporting performances by an able cast that includes Jess Barbagallo, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, and Aaron Mattocks.

The two stories they chose are each centered around the insular life of an emotionally repressed man (which some may consider a tautology) whose two-bit tragedy is that he withdraws from love (not that he was unlovable to begin with because he was so annoyingly self-involved). The original texts—”The Man in a Case” and “About Love“—are available in good translations online and are worth a read if one wants to know what Chekhov was up to. Another good reason to read them is that unlike playscripts that always come more to life onstage, these two short stories come to life on the page far more than they do in this production. That’s because the texts have not actually been dramatized; they’ve been deconstructed, haphazardly, into various styles of depiction using sound effects, projections, videos, and what not, along with fractured bits and pieces of singing, dancing, and acting.

This mixed-media hodge-podge at times prompted my mind to wander, and I found myself trying to guess whether a particular video clip being shown was pre-recorded or is being captured live. (Both kinds are used). But this quirky approach to staging Chekhov, which I found disconcerting and distracting, will surely appeal to others who will enjoy its moment-to-moment clever surprises and witty twists. There’s more cheekiness than Chekhov, of course. More stunts than substance. But seeing how the great danseur noble is keeping on his toes these days is pretty darn impressive.

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Man in a Case plays through December 22, 2013, at Lansburgh Theatre –Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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