Do the Research Before Enjoying: MAN IN A CASE

Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage
Adapted from Two Stories by Anton Chekhov
Adapted and Directed by Annie-B Parson & Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theater
Choreographed by Annie-B Parson
Featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, Paul Lazar and Aaron Mattocks

February 25 – March 2, 2014
Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street
Boston, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

My apologies to ArtsEmerson, Big Dance Theatre, Baryshnikov Productions and anyone else I forgot to mention for the tardiness of this review. I was waylaid by illness this weekend and couldn’t complete my review.

(Boston) Man in a Case is effective theatre that turns Chekhov on its head while retelling the two classic stories “Man in a Case” and “Almost Love.” It does not bridge the 19th and the 21st centuries as advertised. It does, however, transport the viewer into an existential dreamspace/nightmare of meta and experimental theatre. Just in case one is mislead by my description, this was an interesting, thought-provoking performance but it’s not light fare for a family hoping to experience “culture” in the city. Man in a Case could be considered “weird” and weird theatre can be exquisite. It all depends on perspective.

This production is a two-act piece without an intermission. It uses video, an eccentric set of bits and pieces, strobe, ethereal folk song, folk dance and accordion. While it is based on two of Chekhov’s short stories, it diverges greatly from the source material in context and realization. It is so heavy with symbolism it positively drips. Do not be confused; this is not your typical night at the ballet.

In order to enjoy this performance, it is extremely important to read Chekhov’s two short stories beforehand. Attending this performance without doing the appropriate research will be like attending the movie version of a book you haven’t read. The viewer will lose everything in the translation from page to screen: “Man in a Case” is about the self-imposed restrictions we manipulate in order to feel safe in this life. “Almost Love” is about the cruelty of amorous feelings: one cannot choose who they love.

The draw for this production is living legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. Paul Lazar (you may remember him from a little film called Silence of the Lambs) and the rest of the cast was excellent but Baryshnikov is the name that put butts in seats. For all that, audience members expecting an evening of dance will be unsatisfied with this production. There is dance in the first piece but almost none of it is performed by Baryshnikov. He only joins statuesque Tymberly Canale in dance during the second act. The choreography would not be recognized by the uneducated as “classical.” Their modern dance duets wrung an unexpected sympathetic response from the audience. The people sitting around me didn’t know if they enjoyed what they saw but they knew they’d never forget it.

The Cutler Majestic is too large a venue for Man in a Case. This production would have been better served by a more intimate theater. It would have been better appreciated by an audience more familiar with the quirks of experimental theatre and less concerned by the big names sharing the stage. For example, Chris Giarmo sings with the voice of an angel; his compositions are a delight, but the average viewer will not remember his name unless they make a point of doing so. Instead, audiences will remember the weird Baryshnikov show they saw in 2014. For a production this interesting, that’s a damn, dirty shame.

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