Man in a Case
Adapted from Chekhov by Annie-B Parson & Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater
Through March 24, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Some of New York's best experimental theater has fetched up at Hartford Stage this month, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov in two of Chekhov's short stories about thwarted love, constraint, and renunciation. Because the story-telling is very layered, incorporating lots of video projections, narration directly into microphones, on stage designers working with computers in full view, song and codified dance where every gesture is deliberate, this won't be to everyone's taste — but the artistry is of a very high order. I found it quite moving and memorable, with touches of humor to lighten the pervasive sense of lives gone wrong.
The first tale occupies most of the 80-minute show, done without intermission. It's framed as a story told by hunters at the end of the day, relaxing and drinking. Baryshnikov plays Belikov, an uptight teacher of ancient Greek, who encases himself in coat, hat, gloves, and galoshes in all weather. Distressed by any deviation from the rules, he's always afraid there might be trouble. He lives in a tiny room, protected by multiple locks. Yet he falls for a newcomer to town, a carefree young woman who introduces him to parties and dancing. One joke is that Baryshnikov as Belikov is, no question, the worst, most reluctant dancer in the room. This love affair is bound to go badly wrong, and it does.
As the story unfolds we see multiple projections on screens that appear almost anywhere — on a tablecloth, pulled down from above, on televisions in Belikov's room. Sometimes they provide captions; more often they provide alternative angles on the stage action, sometimes from multiple points of view simultaneously, sometimes in real time from visible cameras providing extreme closeups, sometimes in time lapse or ghostly images or stills, sometimes in ways that deviate from what we can see is actually happening. We're forced to confront the inadequacy of any particular viewpoint, to question the veracity of what we can see, live or on tape, and to feel the overwhelming potential of pervasive surveillance.
Multiple audio inputs underscore the layered visuals. Ethnic folk tunes mix with "Penny Lane" sung in Russian, Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again," and even a snippet of Hartford's Colin McEnroe on the radio saying "There is some universality in the story you are telling." Live singing and accordion mix with recorded tracks, coming from various locations around the theater. The first story draws to a close with the statement that the case we all live in is gloomy, oppressive, and senseless.
The second story is called "About Love" and we learn, first off, that the one thing we can know about love is that it is a great mystery. Here, Baryshnikov plays a man who falls in love with the wife of a friend, and she for him. Replicating some of the movements we saw him use to don the clothing of Belikov in the first story, we see a duet done between the couple, lying on the floor, shot from above by a camera, projected on a rear screen. Nothing is conventionally romantic in this duet. The immense musicality that was always part of Baryshnikov's talent is still there; to his credit as an actor, it has migrated into his delivery of speech. Each word is carefully placed melodically, like a jewel, but without sounding stilted.
It's in the graceful transition between the first story and the second that we get to see a bit of Baryshnikov dancing gently as himself in a sweet little solo, before he moves into a second character. There is often an elegiac quality to Chekhov, and certainly these pieces are suffused with that tone. For me, the whole evening was about renunciation, and not just because characters renounce love and one another. At his peak, Baryshnikov was the most bravura and charismatic of performers. There is something very generous in his choice to let us see him now in this new way, renouncing all of that, but not removing himself from the public eye. That he shares his aging openly with us, as one in a company of younger performers, speaks to all of us about enduring artfulness in face of the inexorability of time.