Tymberly Canale, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aaron Mattocks perform in “Man in a Case.”
Iconic ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and I go way back to the 1970’s! Well, kind of.
During the golden age of American Ballet Theater (ABT) in the 1970’s & early 1980’s, it was tradition for my cousins and I to get our money together and buy a pair of tickets of a series so we could all enjoy at least one of the performances.
Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov, nicknamed “Misha,” was born of Russian parents in Riga, Latvia on January 27, 1948. In 1974 while on tour in Canada with the famous Kirov Ballet he defected, joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and shortly after ABT from 1974-1978 where he later became Artistic Director (1980-1986). The rest is dance history.
Considered by many one of the greatest ballet dancers in history he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in the ballet film The Turning Point (1977), where he played a famous Russian ballet defector. He has appeared on several other films and was a love interest of Sarah Jessica Parker is the popular TV program “Sex in The City.”
One of the signs of a true ballet artist is his/her ability of not just technical brilliance but also true acting. This of course is done with the movement of all body parts including arms, feet, hands, facial expressions and any other nuances that would show the essence of the character.
On Thursday at The Broad Stage during opening night of “Man in a Case,” one could see why Baryshnikov was perfectly suited for the roles in the first piece, “Man in a Case” and the subsequent “About Love.”
These intertwined storylines are based on the two short stories of the same name by Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who is considered one of the greatest Russian writers of all time. Adapted for the stage by Annie-B Parson (who also did the choreography) and Paul Lazar, the directors of Big Dance Theater, these two characters played by Baryshnikov are men incapable of putting feelings into words.
As the audience entered the theater, things were already on their way with the curtain raised and the actors mingling onstage. With set design by Peter Ksander, costume design by Oana Botez, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, videos by Jeff Larson, sound by Tei Blow and music direction by Chris Giramo, the production has a feel of a laboratory where many things are tried in order to enhance the story – especially with video and sound.
We are introduced to “Man in a Case” by two radio show personalities seated at a table/studio, Burkin (Jess Bargagallo) and Ivan (Chris Giarmo), who share a story about a man from their town. This Greek language teacher named Belivkov (Baryshnikov) keeps everything in his life organized in boxes or drawers, including boxed-in feelings. He is feared by the town residents given his propensity to spy and to talk about all the “wrong things” going on in town and who is to blame.
Enter a pair of Russian siblings, Barbara (Tymberly Canale) and her brother Kovalenko (Aaron Mattocks), who has just arrived as a new teacher at the school. Some of the town folks see an opportunity to fix up Belivkov with Barbara in an effort get him away from their business. The two meet at a teacher’s party where he is entranced by her as she dances around the stage to a traditional Russian song; she wants him to join her but his mental box prevents it.
Baryshnikov’s training in dance allows for his body language to be the voice of his character, a man who does not want anything to change in his life and feels awkward in the presence of others. His words come out of his body in mannerisms, his rigid posture, the way his collar is up to his ears. Meeting Barbara has shaken Belivkov’s world in a positive manner, but will he take a step out of his “case”?
Canale plays the role of the free spirited Barbara with wit and charm, as she attempts to get the attention our tightly wound Belikov and possibly get him out of his shell. He visits the sibling’s home often and it seems progress in being made until he sees Barbara riding a bicycle in public. According to his “rules,” this is immoral and takes it upon himself to let her brother know. He climbs a set of stairs that are exposed behind the background curtains leading to their sibling’s apartment where he confronts the brother Kolalenko on the front door.
In one of the most interesting scenes of the production we see these two characters from afar but at the same time there is a large projection of a “surveillance” camera that focuses on Belikov’s face while he goes in to his sermon about the immorality of the bicycle incident. At the end of his tirade, he trips and falls down the stairs never to come back as Barbara’s character laughs uncontrollably center stage. Humiliated, he makes his way back home and crawls into his bed as the square shaped overhead canopy drops down to encase him once again.
The second story segues quickly from the first and is introduced by Baryshnikov who also plays the role of a young farmer who befriends a married woman played by Canale. In this segment there is more movement and dance to convey the storyline and characters, so Baryshnikov is in his element. He and Canale do a type of “minuet” dance, barely touching each other while in another scene they sit at a table in a dance of the hands or they lie on the floor trying to reach for each other with the same limitations and outcome of love lost.
Both of these stories are about emotional straitjackets and how the pressures of social mores stand in the way of true happiness. They are presented in an unconventional, “out of the box” production willing to take chances like their leading man, dancer/actor/artistic director/philanthropist Baryshnikov.
“Man in a Case” runs through May 10 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif.