If a director wants to put on a show in which every gesture matters, there is no better man to cast than Mikhail Baryshnikov. All the 65-year-old retired ballet star must do is artfully arch a finger and women of a certain age will faint. But what Man in a Case, a Big Dance Theater production now in residence at Shakespeare Theatre Company, really has going for it is that you need not even have seen The Turning Point or archival Nutcracker footage to experience the swoon factor. Baryshnikov can convey a paragraph of meaning in a gesture, and what better literary vehicle for his singular talent than stage adaptations of two stories by Anton Chekhov?
Chekhov, you may recall, spent the late 19th century writing plays and stories with entire plots that hang on his characters’ inabilities to put feelings into words. Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the directors of Big Dance Theater, chose two of the Russian’s lesser-known tales to adapt for the stage, and cleverly framed them with an absurdist exchange (liberally extracted from the text) that can only be described as Samuel Beckett meets Duck Dynasty. Three actors and two sound and video technicians are already onstage as the audience files in. At the point we are supposed to start paying attention, the flannel-clad hunters are discussing turkey calls and shotguns. They’re seated at a table, speaking into microphones, like hosts of a radio call-in show. The talk of M1s and Super Blacks is interrupted not by fans, but by a genteelly dressed Baryshnikov, who tells them in accented English that he has shot a fucking turkey, too.
Baryshnikov dropping an f-bomb—wow. But as he does he’s also gesturing, each finger moving independently of the other four. When he pauses, it’s to don a long, black, brocaded jacket. We hear a Russian recording of the Dusty Springfield hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Jess Barbagallo, who plays one of the hunters, says, “I once knew a man named Belikov. You’ve probably heard of him.”
We haven’t, of course, but we do know Baryshnikov. Since retiring from ballet, the Soviet defector’s performing endeavors have included starring in a Broadway production of Metamorphoses, appearing as Carrie’s older artist beau in the final season of Sex in the City, and touring the world performing modern works by contemporary choreographers. He chooses his projects well, and in Belikov, he’s chosen to play a tightly wound, neurotic, socially awkward Russian schoolmaster.
Through dance, music, multimedia, and an episodic script, five actors tell the story of a misfit Greek and Latin teacher and his failed attempt at love. At an awkward holiday party (how seasonally appropriate!) Belikov meets a colleague’s younger sister, Barbara, glibly played by Tymberly Canale. He’s smitten, but has a tough time showing it, and reaches for her only to pull back his hand. When she does a traditional Ukrainian dance in public, she might as well be Salome with seven veils. Belikov—a man who keeps each glove in a separate drawer—is thoroughly unsettled. One spring day he sees her riding one of those newfangled, improper-for-ladies bicycles and flips out for good. For Baryshnikov, this means rolling backwards down the onstage stairway under strobe lights.
The second story woven into this production, “About Love,” feels more like a drawn-out denouement than a fleshed-out second act. But as the other hunter/actors narrate, Baryshnikov and Canale pantomime the story of a Russian woman unhappily married to a magistrate, and the handsome bachelor farmer who visits them. Theirs is a torrid affair of the hands. Seated at a table, they take turns touching wrists. These aren’t caresses so much as gentle taps that cannot linger, so every press of the palm counts. Aided by video projections, we see Canale board a train for the Crimea, while she and Baryshnikov embrace in the flesh. “Oh, how unhappy they were!” is the exclamation in Chekhov. But she was beautiful, the actors onstage acknowledge, in a conclusion as beautiful as unhappy endings can be.