Mikhail Baryshnikov Transforms Chekhov in Santa Monica

Man in a Case. Photograph by T. Charles Erickson

If you're a fan of Mikhail Baryshnikov, or think you know your Chekhov from your Pushkin, Man in a Case might be your theatrical cup of tea. Adapted and directed by Paul Lazar and Annie B-Parson from two Anton Chekhov short stories about love, the brief 90 minute-long play-in-a-play for Baryshnikov and four actors inhabited a living space more than it told a story of much import; its purpose was to free our imagination into wondering what lies beyond the hopes and fears we all feel about love.

For Baryshnikov fans, it's all about taking in his face and presence and manner, hearing him speak in that wonderful gravely smooth voice in a variety of unmistakably Russian accents and watching him exist in physical space even if he's just lounging around. And though Baryshnikov only does about 90 seconds total of real dancing, including a Fred Astaire soft shoe bit, he makes explicit balletic love in a series of astounding pas de deux positions with an unconventionally brilliant talent named Tymberly Canale: standing, sitting and lying down, the last images from from an overhead camera rotated vertically and superimposed on a large video screen.

Man in a Case opened April 24 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica where it will run through May 10.

I exchanged a brief email correspondence with Baryshnikov last week.
VITTES What it is about Chekhov that makes him so fondly-remembered by native Russian speakers-is it something more than just characters and situations?
BARYSHNIKOV It's not just native Russian speakers who love Chekhov's work. Millions of people have read his stories and seen presentations of his plays in dozens of languages so clearly he speaks to us all. There's a universality that makes his plays and stories as potent now as they were at the end of the 19th century. In Man in a Case the stories are about love, undeclared love, fears of being consumed by one's passions - these are as relevant today as they ever were.
VITTES: What was your goal with Man in a Case?
BARYSHNIKOV: You are exaggerating my impact on this project. I am merely an actor trying to do justice to the vision of my directors, Annie B Parsons and Paul Lazar.  But, of course, as an actor I do have a personal feeling about the two characters I play. My goal is to illuminate them and maybe raise some questions in the minds of the audience about personal responsibility for your own feelings and the feelings of others. Like one of the characters in the play says, "Love is a great mystery. Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a series of questions -- which have remained unanswered." If the audience thinks about that for even a few minutes then I'm happy.
VITTES: Can your freeform, open-source approach to production be adopted by big companies?
BARYSHNIKOV: This is an adaptation of a short story and our directors had a free hand to open the story the way they saw it. I think that's always the way projects are developed, big or small.
VITTES: Is the "high-tech fusion of theatre, movement, music, etc." that your press release promises a 21st-century equivalent of opera or something else entirely?
BARYSHNIKOV: Well, it's certainly not an opera. I think Man in a Case realizes a modern theatrical language -- by that I mean a fusion of all the performance and technical elements that Annie B and Paul have experimented with for many years. I happen to like this language -- there's a complex simplicity to it that seems perfect for Chekhov. Actually, I once read that Tolstoy described Chekhov as throwing words about like an Impressionist painter achieving "wonderful results from his touches." I think the theatrical language used in this play allows us to get closer to that idea.

Man in a Case. Photograph by T. Charles Erickson