Saturday, December 7, 2013

Man in a Case Theatre Review

Mikhail Baryshnikov (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anthropos in Love

I don't pretend to know that much about theatre: Sure, I've seen all the big shows (some more than once) but when it comes to thinking outside of the box, I'm what you might call... a late bloomer. I like my art entertaining, and relatively easy to understand. Man in a Case, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's latest show at the Lansburgh theater is a struggle for me. It alludes to all sorts of things, brushing past me on its way to Destination Unknown.

That said, don't consider me a lesser man for not liking Man in a Case: It's merely not my cup of tea. I think I have a pretty good idea of what co-directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar are striving for... They've adapted two short stories from famed Russian author Anton Chekhov; and built them around the impressive frame of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Trouble is, they're not all that interesting.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale and Aaron Mattocks (r) (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The first story (1898's The Man in a Case) showcases Baryshnikov as Belikov, a fearsome school teacher portrayed as a boogie-man of sorts, "The whole school is afraid of him... The whole town." Why everyone is afraid, remains a mystery to me: He's teaches Greek, for Heaven's sake... How scary can he be? The story is broken up into chapters, whose titles are displayed on various projection screens (evidently, these TVs are pivotal to the play.) First up is The Faculty Meeting, where Mikhail rings a bell in between slick hand movements. Next is The Visit, where Belikov scares the 'you know what' out of two characters, who just five minutes earlier were discussing turkey hunting on their own radio talk show (Yup, I was lost already.)

Belikov takes over the dining table, as his two hosts fumble all over themselves. Before you know it, he finally takes the hint (he's not a welcome dinner guest) and heads home... a depressing apartment, consisting of a door with half-a-dozen locks (actually seven) a Murphy bed that literally engulfs him in misery and more TVs (all of which allude to how miserable he is.) Even one of the aforementioned DJs refers to his going home as, "The horror of his reality." Yikes.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

From there, we meet some Ukrainian chick who rides a bicycle in the background while giggling. She winds up the object of Baryshnikov's affections in the second part of the show, "About Love," a thankfully shorter story of love and tragedy (uh, the woman's married... how did you think it was going to turn out?) The play's resonating theme seems to be depression, namely Baryshnikov's. "A man who wore galoshes in all kinds of weather" is hardly the kind of guy you want to be around for an hour and 15 minutes, is he? Tymberly Canale, who ably plays Barbara echoes that sentiment, "Why is everyone here so glum? So bored?" and the more direct, "You look dispirited." Amen sister!

If not for Baryshnikov's name and the hope that he'll eventually dance (he does finally, almost an hour in) this show would be dead on arrival. Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo take turns narrating on-stage as Burkin & Ivan (think a Russian version of SCTV's Bob & Doug McKenzie.) Barbagallo's voice is particularly unpleasant... so much so, that it took great effort to tune her out. To be honest, I don't even know why they're in it: You could accomplish more with an unseen voice(s) from the rafters.

On the other hand, Baryshnikov remains a physical marvel to behold. He turns 66 next month, but shows no signs of wear and tear (far from it.) The Latvian-born renaissance man oozes charm, even while standing still; but that side of him gets lost inside the stoic character he's asked to portray. I want style. I want energy. Sadly, there's no room for either here.

Tymberly Canale (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I'm sure some will find it dazzling and smart... You know, the kind of people who like to discuss Nietzsche over dinner. If you're reading DC Outlook, I know that doesn't include you (at least I hope not.) Perhaps one day, I'll get this kind of theater. Until then, bring me comedy, sex and treachery (as only dear ol' Bill Shakespeare can deliver.)

Grade: D