Ever Present Technique

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

It should come as no shock that a play starring Mikhail Baryshnikov is grounded in technique. What is surprising is the effect and scope of all that technique. But more on that in a minute.

Mr. Baryshnikov has returned to the Broad Stage, this time in a collaboration with New York's Big Dance Theater adapting two Chekhov short stories under the title Man in a Case.

Both stories, written by Chekhov near the end of his life - after The Seagull but just before his final three masterpieces - are stories of missed love. In The Man in a Case a provincial high school teacher leads a rigidly compartmentalized life: everything in its place, everything according to the rules. Until . . . he becomes enamored of the outgoing sister of a new teacher. This being Chekhov, it doesn't end well.

In the second story, About Love, a man who falls in with a husband and his young wife. He's struck in their very first meeting by the woman's beauty. Over the years they become close friends - all the while the man harbors a secret love. He never acts on it - given his propriety - until finally the husband is transferred to a remote town. As the wife boards a train to leave forever our protagonist confesses his love. The two embrace but . . . the train departs.

Big Dance Theater tackles these stories with the hip arsenal of 'downtown' theater techniques. There's stunning video design by Jeff Larson that fills everything from kitschy pull down screens to unexpected nooks and crannies: playing with both space and time. There's the onstage sound designer, Tei Blow, underscoring the action with vinyl LP's and live Foley effects of pouring water and footfalls. And then there's Peter Ksander's set that's a mix of convention-center-anonymous-grey drapery juxtaposed with a shoe-box apartment assembled out of old trunks, a vintage radio and a magical Murphy bed you won't soon forget.

And of course, this being Baryshnikov, there's the movement. Yes, he dances, though it's as much a dance with the idea of dancing. He knows what the audience expects and he plays with that. In the first story, infused with a modern riff on traditional folk dance, the conceit is that he's a shy, clumsy man who stomps on his own foot. As a sort of entr’acte diversion, he does the obligatory solo but like in his previous visit to the Broad, In Paris, the revelation is the grace he brings to everyday movement. There's a bureaucratic choreography of hand gestures as he's seated at a table that reveals as much through restraint as virtuosity. 



The technique is undeniable. That's the through-line of the whole production. There's no question these are masters of their craft.

What's odd, and maybe fitting for a pair of stories about a man who misses out on love, is that the evening feels strangely lacking in raw passion. Typically in the theater -- especially Los Angeles theater, you feel an abundance of passion and wish for more refinement. Here, it's technique that's ever present and, frankly, stunning.

Man in a Case plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through May 10.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running Time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Man in a Case. Photo: T. Charles Erickson