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Experimental art of all kinds requires the will to fail, necessarily more often than not. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting and innovative experimental theater afoot, but the avant-garde is not immune to trends, nor even to its own alternative brands of conformity. Indeed, recycling fashions in innovation can make such work date quicker than leaving Shangri-La. Writer-directors Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson‘s Man in a Case juliennes two Chekhov short stories into an alert and knowing salad of contemporary mannerisms, often with intelligence and skill yet so little illumination and insight.
Big Dance Theatre Ensemble comes with impeccable credentials, and no one can fault their commitment to their intentions. So little of Chekhovian content actually survives the multimedia deconstruction that it is pointless to fault the show for failing to tap any of the irony, rue or romantic desperation so characteristic of the source material.
Chekhov’s key point gets essentially reduced to the nostrum that love changes nothing, not least because we are invariably either so far ahead or so far behind our emotions that we rarely get even the fleeting moments right. Environmentally, the action and audience are trapped in a post-Kafkaesque mosh pit of technological gestures that substitute for romantic identification. It’s a point quickly established, and then repeated, without variations that develop much beyond the primary vision.
Then, of course, there is Mikhail Baryshnikov, inevitably a star presence always reason enough for any occasion. Sagely, he approaches his acting and his choice of theater seriously and with a keen appreciation for his talents and limitations. He makes a selfless member of the collective troupe and indulges in not the least reliance upon his celebrity. He uses his voice and accent as the instrument he has, deploying them effectively within their range. And oh how he moves, making so little count for so much. There are tiny spasms of dance in the show, ineffably brief and sublime, but he moves primarily as an actor, in deference to character and in humility as a compliant component of the larger conception. It’s good that he does work of this kind, motivated by the integrity of a truly devoted artist.
Chekhov stories have been adapted for the stage in many original ways. In Los Angeles alone we have recently had the Antaeus’ unwavering traditionalism and Theatre Movement Bazaar’s bizarre dance-movement reinventions, both preferable to this more orthodox attitudinizing and posturing version for all its art-installation video projections and ostentatious sound mixing.
Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (runs through May 10)
Cast: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Jess Barbagallo, Chris Giarmo, Aaron Mattocks
Writer-directors: Paul Lazar, Annie-B Parson, adapted from Anton Chekhov’s short stories, “Man in a Case” and “About Love”
Set designer: Peter Ksander
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Costume designer: Oana Botez
Video designer: Jeff Larson (associate Keith Skretch)
Sound designer: Tei Blow
Music director: Chris Giarmo
Presented by Baryshnikov Productions with Big Dance Theatre Ensemble
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