Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov perform a dramatic pas de deux depicting the unrequited love between an unmarried man and a married woman in About Love, the second piece featured in Man in a Case, at Berkeley Rep. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Obie award winning Big Dance Theater blend dance, video, theater and music to create a dream-like exploration of love and loss in Man in a Case at the Berkeley Rep

Although seeing theater that integrates performance, spoken word and mixed media can be fascinating, the Chekhov stories might have generated more vitality and power as conventional dramas. The surveillance footage, folk dances, instructional hunting videos and interviews with the cast didn’t add to the evening; rather they provided unnecessary distractions from Chekhov’s stories.

The evening begins as two hunters tell stories during a long night. One hunter tells Byelikov’s tale, Man in a Case, as an example of people “who try to retreat into their shell like a hermit crab or a snail.” Byelikov (played by Mikhail Baryshnikov), a teacher at a provincial school, was extraordinarily orderly, both in his personal and professional lives. He was proud of his disciplined life, determined to avoid the smallest hint of impropriety.

Mikhail Baryshnikov stars as Belikov, an uptight Greek teacher in Man in a Case, an innovative take on two of Anton Chekhov’s 1898 short stories, Man in a Case and About Love. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Then he becomes captivated by an extroverted woman, Varinka, the sister of a new teacher at the school. Everyone hoped that she would temper Byelikov. However, someone in town circulated a humorous caricature of Byelikov and Varinka. Byelikov was devastated. Even more incomprehensible and scandalous to Byelikov was the fact that Varinka, a woman, road a bicycle in the park. Byelikov felt he had to choose between opening his heart to Varinka and his rigid sense of propriety that sacrificed that love. He didn’t choose wisely.

In About Love, the second tale, Chekhov also explores the tension between freedom and conventionalism. The protagonist is obsessed with a married woman, a love that was returned but never acknowledged until it was too late. The poignancy of this tale stayed with me. Though seemingly different, both stories are about those whose fear inhibits their pursuit of life’s joys.

In an interview, when asked why he and the directors chose to produce these stories, Baryshnikov stated, “Chekhov is the flag of Russian literature, and he’s almost as well known in the West. He speaks a universal language, like Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, and every generation interprets it differently. These plays touch on a lot of aspects of modern life — conservatism and liberalism and ethics — from a sociopolitical point of view and a personal point of view. Also, they are both about love, and they’re not exactly the happy stories.”

Unfortunately, Baryshnikov’s statement about the universality of Chekhov’s literature is not fully realized in this disjointed performance. Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, co-founders of the Big Dance Theater, have created over 20 works that have toured internationally. Big Dance chose to mount these plays with many creative ideas and conceptions. Yet, their attempt to marry Chekhov with their singular aesthetic didn’t work for me — even with Baryshnikov’s significant star power.

Man in a Case is playing at Berkeley Rep through February 16, 2014.

For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...