Short Russian Dramas: Berkeley Rep Uses the World's Most Famous Dancer to Tell Some Chekhov Tales

Two shadowy, seductive short stories by Russian author Anton Chekhov are the heartbeat of Man in a Case, the arresting production running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Feb. 16.

Adapted and directed by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Big Dance Theater's Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the show features one of the world's greatest dancers: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Latvia native sprang from the Kirov Ballet's studios in 1974 and went on to rock the world as a New York City Ballet principal, director of American Ballet Theatre and White Oak Dance Project, and star of television, film, and theater.

Baryshnikov — whose very appearance makes attendance worthwhile — is only one of the show's jewels. The richness of Chekhov's stripped down tales, set in a multimedia-saturated show, provides fertile ground for a skilled, fearless cast and onstage crew.

The title story unfolds for most of the 75-minute, no-intermission production. Belikov (Baryshnikov) is a teacher of Greek who terrorizes colleagues by being present. Socially and privately rigid, he locks himself into his closet-like home, the walls of which are studded with the antiquated books and television screens, to protect the gaping hole in his heart. When the frothy Barbara (Tymberly Canale) cycles in to fill the opening, a transformation occurs. Belikov becomes a man in love, prone to springing airborne in defiance of his customary gravity and taking exuberant rides on settees. The arrival of an anonymous, cruel caricature drawing of Belikov, mocking his love, drives Belikov from Barbara and back to his curtain-shrouded bed. The case lid slams shut: His bed becomes a crypt.

The play's most heart-wrenching, beautiful moment occurs here: lighting designer Jennifer Tipton's stark illumination combining with costume designer Oana Botez's black, see-through umbrellas and a haunting dirge sung by the cast.

In About Love, the play's essential endcap, Baryshnikov is a raconteur, telling of love forfeited for propriety's sake. He and a married woman deny themselves each other — until a last-minute collapse into a brief embrace on a departing train. The man flees from his own appetites, again locking himself in and losing love's opportunity.

If the characters can't find their hearts' desire, the audience can: There's much to love in the multimedia exploits and veteran cast. The sound collage created by Tei Blow and performed by music director Chris Giarmo is a gorgeous, textured serenade. Giarmo and the cast prove voices and bodies are as variable as his accordion (fold, punch, wheeze, polka). There's no denying the physical genius of Baryshnikov's twisted coat-dressing and backwards catapult down a staircase, or the way lifting two hands from a table becomes imprisonment and the incline of a chin is a declaration of war. His partner, Canale, is a silky, sublime mover. And Parson's finesse as director balances the giddy humor of plaid-shirted hunters and projected Polaroids with the narrative push of romantic sensibilities.

Ironically, the double-barreled tragedy sends the audience from the theater curiously energized. Uplifted by the masterful performers, Chekhov's manifesto becomes a nearly cheery missive: Go, find love, grab it, and never let it go.

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