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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Man in a Case

Supposedly this relatively short show (clocking in at slightly over an hour) is an experimental multimedia performance involving onstage narration, a bit of acting, a bit of music and dancing, some video screen juxtaposition, and sound and light effects. It seems to me, however, essentially telling stories with some gestures and props.

The stories it tells are two from Chekhov: Man in a Case and About Love. The first is about a Greek teacher at a small town school who is terrified. He follows rules and obeys authority with shuddering deference. He never puts half a toes out of line. At night he huddles in bed with fear of the world and people. For a brief moment he was on the brink of falling in love with a vibrant laughing young woman, but in the end the shock of relationship is too much to bear.

The second story tells about a university-educated farmer stuck in his boring monotonous life. He falls in love with a married woman in town and becomes a friend of the family. They are both too timid to admit their attractions until the moment she moves away with her husband and children. And they never see each other again.

The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov plays the lead roles in both. At 63 he looks lean and sharp and entirely at ease as an actor. Although he does not dance in the show --- minus a minute or two of improvised jazzy twists in the middle to satisfy the audience who have come specifically to see him --- he moves with grace and precision. The show reaches its climax with a "dance" on the floor between the two unconsumated lovers that is projected onto a screen. It was breathtaking.

If I had seen it or read the stories even ten years ago, I would not have been moved as much as I am now. Perhaps ten years from now I will be moved even more. They are about self-inflicted failures and paralysis. "Look at you pathetic lot," Chekhov seems to say with a malicious smirk, "Look how you've ruined your own hope and happiness. Your lives are so boring and full of regret, and you have no one to blame but your own laziness, cowardice, and inaction."

Coming out of the theater I almost want to jump on a plane and fly to ... wherever, to plunge into adventures, to sleep with strangers, to feel more acutely alive. Of course it is not so simple. Thrashing around aimlessly for drama or a moment's adrenaline release is marginally more alive, perhaps, than the mundane middle-aged life locked in habits and routines and outdated rules. How do we be alive? How do we live? Ah the answer is not easy. 

The qualities that paralyze Belikov, the man in a case, and the couple in the second story are so pervasive that I see them in people all around me, even in myself, lots in myself. I feel shaken and stirred. It makes me want to change and embrace life with more urgency, exactly how to do that I don't know.

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