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Review: Baryshnikov and Big Dance Theater experiment with Chekhov

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"Man in a Case" review: To be eloquent, Mikhail Baryshnikov must be set in motion.
Baryshnikov and Big Dance Theater present two Chekov stories as the non-dance theater piece 'Man in a Case.'

Yes, he even falls with grace.

Mikhail Baryshnikov doesn't get much opportunity to dance in "Man in a Case," a performance piece that has been adapted from the Anton Chekhov short stories "The Man in a Case" and "About Love." The most he offers is a few moves wreathed in air quotes.

But there's a point in the production, which opened Thursday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, when he slides down a steep flight of steps that is more revealing of his character than anything thus far in his portrayal. To be eloquent, Baryshnikov must be set in motion.

As an actor in adventurous theater fare, he's a game participant, as he demonstrated a couple of seasons ago at the Broad in "In Paris," a dreamlike romantic collage involving brooding Russian expats.

Baryshnikov appreciates kaleidoscopic storytelling of a multimedia bent and doesn't mind being used as a single color in a busy stage palette. He may be an international dance superstar, but he's willing to lend his talents to interdisciplinary artistic visions without demanding a shift in the focus.

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His years of dancing, however, haven't built up his vocal resources. And his ability to concentrate his dramatic presence isn't as developed as an actor who has devoted his or her career to this kind of performance work — think of Kate Valk with the Wooster Group or Scott Shepherd with both the Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service.

In fairness, they can't pirouette like he can. And it's not as though Baryshnikov is dragging down "Man in a Case," a work constructed by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater.

Lazar and Parson have done magical things with literary classics in the past. Their stage transfiguration of Gustave Flaubert's tale "A Simple Heart" converted the most exquisite prose into a whimsical physical vocabulary that somehow maintained a Flaubertian poise. With "Man in a Case," they're still tinkering with the formula.

The production is visually striking in a bustling surreal manner, but there's some fuzziness around the frame. The piece begins with the performers assembling around a table to talk about bird calls. They're hunters, evidently. Baryshnikov's character recalls a hunting incident with a turkey that occurred in (huh?) North Florida. The story that's related in Chekhov's "The Man in a Case" is forthcoming, but this desultory beginning, played ultra-casually by the ensemble, is disorienting.

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Once the story of Belikov, a teacher of dead languages who leads a muffled life of isolation and pedantry, is underway, it's easier to find one's bearings. Baryshnikov provides a flamboyant outline of the character, who walks around in black attire carrying an umbrella in a case, accouterments of what is in effect an entombed existence.

The narrative revolves around a quasi-romance between Belikov and Barbara (Tymberly Canale), a new teacher's unmarried sister who's as bubbly as Belikov is flat. She rides in and out on a bicycle, giggling insouciantly, a breach of etiquette that Belikov, a stickler for prohibition and restraint, cannot brook.

A confrontation happens between Belikov and Barbara's brother (Aaron Mattocks). (This is when Baryshnikov takes his lyrical tumble.) What turns out to be a tragedy for Belikov winds up being a comedy (of the acidic variety) for the other characters.

The stage is filled with screens flashing images and film footage. Records are played (including Carly Simon's old hit "Coming Around Again"), there's some live singing, and a bit of folk dancing breaks out. The capriciousness is highly choreographed.

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Peter Ksander's set, Oana Botez's costumes, Jennifer Tipton's lighting, Tei Blow's sound design and Jeff Larson's video create a diorama that Salvador Dalí would adore. How well this staging serves Chekhov is another matter. Those who read the works ahead of time and arrive at the Broad expecting a theatrical riff rather than a reproduction will likely be the most satisfied.

The transition to "About Love" is as awkward as the production's beginning, with the performers returning to the table and drifting about in an irresolute manner. This is another story about characters unequal to the heroic challenges of love.

The ensemble, which includes Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo, has some trouble conveying the full meaning of these tales amid all the scenic beguilement. In the leap from page to stage, Chekhov gets diluted. The great Russian writer is used in the same manner as the great Russian-born dancer — as an expressive element in a larger composite that hasn't yet found its form.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Man in a Case'

Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends May 10.

Tickets: $47-$137

Contact: (310) 434-3200 or http://www.thebroadstage.com

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes


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