What do you get when the doyen of contemporary ballet meets the definitive playwright of our age? Neither a play nor a dance, but something new and marvelous — a multimedia staging of two timeless Anton Chekhov short stories, which will run for just two more weeks at the Berkeley Rep.
The show, “Man in a Case,” is well worth the drive down, if only to see the protean Mikhail Baryshnikov, who — at age 66 — can still morph before our eyes from a rigid old crank to a lyrically lovelorn young swain. He assumes both roles, successively, in the course of a 75-minute tour de force that incorporates dance, mime, spoken lines, voice-over and video projections.
Not that Baryshnikov holds the stage alone. He’s brilliantly accompanied by co-star Tymberly Canale and supporting male lead Aaron Mattocks. Stage adaptor Paul Lazar, who co-directed along with choreographer Annie-B Parson, enacts key roles and voices most of the narrative. Even music designer Chris Giarmo performs his own compositions live while acting speaking roles. Sound-cum-video designer Tei Blow stalks the stage, computer in hand, controlling the son et lumiére like a high-tech bunraku prop master.
In the title story, Baryshnikov plays Byelikov, a mingy, bachelor classics teacher in a provincial high school. It’s a mark of balletic genius that Baryshnikov manages to be dour with grace and even sympathy for the terror that underlies all of Byelikov’s crotchets.
By his mere, silently censorious presence, this passive-aggressive busybody leaves everyone around him “afraid of everything … afraid to speak aloud, afraid to send letters, afraid to make acquaintances, afraid to read books, afraid to help the poor, to teach people to read and write.” (Of course such paranoia is a cultural quiddity of Oriental Despotisms like Russia, Iran or China, utterly alien to modern American experience.)
So when an unattached woman-of-a-certain-age moves into town, the local faculty wives think to pair her off with Byelikov in hopes that marriage might humanize him. Canale dances the role just as Chekhov describes her, “a regular sugar-plum,…so sprightly, so noisy.” Byelikov’s flattered, but dithers until an anonymous prank pamphlet about the budding romance humiliates him to death.
Literally. He takes to his bed for a month and then dies, much to the secret relief of his neighbors and colleagues, who enjoy “a feeling like that we had experienced long, long ago as children when our elders had gone out and we ran about the garden for an hour or two, enjoying complete freedom.” But their schadenfreude proves short-lived: “Not more than a week had passed before life went on as in the past, as gloomy, oppressive, and senseless — a life not forbidden by government prohibition, but not fully permitted, either.”
Chekhov seems to be chiding us (à la Shakespeare), that “the fault lies not in our stars…but in ourselves,” in our own slavish nature more than any external oppression. But, rather than ending on such a sour note, Baryshnikov and co-directors Lazar and Parson round out the evening with a little aperitif, a multimedia rendition of another short story, “About Love.”
Even this tonic, though, will be bitter-sweet at best. As Chekhov warns us, “Love is usually poeticized, decorated with roses, nightingales; we Russians decorate our loves with these momentous questions, and select the most uninteresting of them, too … whether it is honorable or dishonorable, sensible or stupid, what this love is leading up to, and so on.”
Such qualms ballast the liaison between a young, rusticated intellectual (Baryshnikov) and his married neighbor (Canale). The story traces the years-long arc of their unspoken attraction from its heady onset through its thwarted denial and finally its confession as he sees her off on the train that will carry them apart forever.
This is a much more interior, psychological piece than the title story on the bill. It lends itself perfectly to the production’s multimedia approach. The initial pas de deux is strikingly restrained and solemn, almost a minuet, with the all impetuosity of new love conveyed by the whirling background of the cyclorama. Baryshnikov and Canale convey the frustration of their unavowed love in a jagged sarabande of hands that don’t quite touch and eyes that don’t quite meet across a table. All the more affecting, then, is their final, static clinch as they part.
The code of writerly economy — that a story should contain exactly no more nor less than what the plot requires — was such a fetish of Chekhov’s that the dogma to this day bears his name. To see the principle applied in a whole gamut of the most contemporary media, make a trip to Berkeley in the next couple of weeks.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.