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Tackling Chekhov, dancer Baryshnikov proves he can act

Mikhail Baryshnikov (center), Tymberly Canale (left) and Aaron Mattocks perform in “Man in a Case.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Mikhail Baryshnikov (center), Tymberly Canale (left) and Aaron Mattocks perform in “Man in a Case.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson


“Man in a Case,” the new Mikhail Baryshnikov star turn, melds uncountable elements.

Radiantly.

But the dramatic Berkeley Rep re-invention of two Anton Chekhov short stories is so complex, so augmented with symbolism and stagecraft, I’m sure a single viewing is insufficient to absorb it all.

And, frankly, I suspect I might feel the same after two or three more times in the audience.

“Man in a Case,” which was adapted and co-directed by the dazzling duo behind the Big Dance Theatre, Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, fuses movement, theatrics, music and video.

Parson may deserve the most credit.

She alone was responsible for the piece’s choreography, which not only fit Baryshnikov’s dance and acting chops like skintight leggings but lent itself to integrating disparate elements — projections of titles and 1890s Russian characters re-dressed in modern garb, a quintet of TV terminals blinking in unison, infinite paper caricatures wafting from above, a strobe ball rotating ever so gently, accordion melodies blaring in contrast with scratchy old recordings, and a canopied Murphy bed sliding effortlessly into a wall.

Amazingly, like a perfectly practiced drill team, everything works in synch.

And Parson put it all together with a surrealistic cleverness that made me think she might have been channeling Salvador Dali after he’d stumbled upon Marcel Marceau and Spike Jones in the afterlife and convinced them to come back to Earth and pool their talents.

“Man in a Case” spotlights two modern-day hunters who swap poignant stories after initially wielding their microphones like comic weaponry, as if they were doing early morning drive-time radio.

The first — and longer — tale centers on Belikov, an uptight, reclusive Greek teacher who’s feared by his fellow pedagogues — and, indeed, “the whole town.” He falls for a cheery woman but, calamitously, can’t sustain the relationship.

The second story depicts a guy who grieves for his unrequited love, a married woman.

According to Parson, both Baryshnikov protagonists “have preconceived ideas how to live, even if it means living life in a case…of their own construction.”

She also said, in an interview with the Hartford Stage’s senior dramaturg, that even though the title piece is “prose, not a play, it’s eminently actable.”

Baryshnikov, who’d grown up reading Chekhov stories and plays, validates that notion.

And so do the other six actors in the ensemble cast, especially Tymberly Canale, his dance-and-love companion in both segments.

One stagey conceit of “Man in a Case” is showing onstage what normally goes on behind the scenes. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the “transparency,” but once I had, I found it refreshing.

Exactly what were the two co-directors trying to achieve?

Lazar has said, “It’s Chekhov’s unvarnished contemporary quality and his not feeling at an historical distance that we’re going after.”

Mission accomplished.

Baryshnikov, a Latvia native, started studying ballet at age 9. He became the principal dancer of the Kirov Ballet in 1969, and five years later defected from the former Soviet Union to dance with major companies around the world. 

His film work has included “The Turning Point” and “White Nights,” and he appeared in “Metamorphosis” on Broadway.

His most famous role, however, may have been in the television series “Sex in the City,” in which he’s dumped by Carrie Bradshaw for Mr. Big.

In 2012, Baryshnikov starred in the Berkeley Rep production of “In Paris,” a tragic love story that garnered only mixed reviews. He’d sunk $250,000 of his own money into the project.

Although the actor-dancer recently turned 65, he’s been quoted as saying, “I never celebrate my birthdays. I really don’t care.”

He also said: “Your body actually reminds you about your age and your injuries — the body has a stronger memory than your mind.”

Does his body hold up as he effectively makes the leap from one Chekhov short story to the other?

Absolutely.

Last year, Baryshnikov told the Washington Post, “I have been in successful productions sometimes. And I’ve sucked many times, too.”

Hey, Misha, there’s zero suckage this time.

“Man in a Case” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Feb. 16. Night performances, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Matinees, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $22.50 to $125, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

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