We have been to the Shakespeare Theatre three times in a little more than a week. Sometimes, things just work out that way.
First, we saw “A Funny Thing Happens on the Way to the Forum”, a wonderful production, and then a staged reading of Pirandello’s “Henry IV”. Last night we saw a traveling production of an adaptation of two Chekhov short stories, billed under the title of one of them “Man in a Case”. (The other is “About Love”) The cast was led by none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov.
I can’t say that the 70 minute production (which premiered earlier this year in Hartford) was a success. And I can’t say that I have a clue as to what they were trying to accomplish. Of course, I understand that this may be my problem, not theirs, but I don’t think so.
I have read, mainly long ago, many Chekhov short stories (some back when I was in college, in Russian), and am a fan. What I liked best about his stories was their simplicity, simplicity in story line, in language and in mood. Chekhov’s stories have an easy going rhythm. They lull you along. They are almost musical. The production we saw last night was anything but.
How to best explain?
First, the stories share a common thread, unhappy love (common to all Russian stories, perhaps). In “Man in a Case”, the focal character is Belnikov, a recently deceased teacher who lived a life of fear, fear or doing something wrong, fear of failing, fear of making a fool of himself, fear of all relationships. Hiding himself behind his study of ancient Greek, Belnikov finally meets a woman, the sister of a newly hired instructor at his school. She is sassy and adventurous (she even rides a bicycle – alors!) and tries to teach Baryshnikov how to have a good time and dance. Of course, despite a good start, the relationship fails, and the frightened and embarrassed Belnikov disappears, only to be found a month later in his room, dead. In “About Love”, Baryshnikov plays a young man of promise, who forgoes his own career to tend his father’s farm until various dates are paid off, and who becomes friendly with a couple in the nearest town, and friendlier with the wife than with the husband. An unconsummated relationship between the two, with only occasional meetings, until the wife falls into depression and is hospitalized in the Crimea, while the husband and their children are sent to a new job in the “west”, and Baryshnikov ponders “what could have been”.
Typical Russian stories. You can sense, I think, the slow rhythm with which they would be told.
But this production is multi-media. Four young men, all teachers at the school, sitting around a table talking about turkey hunting (yes, this is in the story), but brash and aggressive and loud, speaking too fast, interrupting each other, abrupt (but no excessive) movement, not at all Chekhov, I thought. And they tell the story of Belnikov, in a multi-media format – acting, music (some live, some recorded), and cameras and screens all over (some showing live what is happening on stage from different angles, some pre-recorded), and strobe lights. Jarring and hard to follow, I thought.
At the end of the first story, after the death of Belnikov, Baryshnikov reappears as one of the guys (as does the woman playing his would be bride), and quietly, while everyone sits around the table, Baryshnikov (in his fine voice, and charming accent) reads some of the final paragraphs of the Chekhov story:
“It was midnight. One the right could be seen the whole village, a long street stretching far away for four miles. All was buried in deep silent slumber: not a movement, not a sound; one could hardly believe that nature was so still.When on a moonlit night you see a broad village street, with its cottages, haystacks and slumbering willows, a feeling of calm comes over the soul……”
This was beautiful. It was Chekhov. It captured the atmosphere of the story, the rhythm.
And then came the short “About Love”. This was barely acted out at all; it too was read by Baryshnikov, wonderfully……the rhythm again.
I didn’t see Baryshnikov act in “Sex in the City”, so his acting skills were a revelation to me. That he has a good stage presence is obviously not a surprise, but his ability to pronounce each word so clearly, his phrasing and timing, his melodious voice – I didn’t not know to expect that.
I wasn’t as happy with the rest of his traveling cast. Looking at their backgrounds in the program, they all seem to have as much or more dance as acting experience. But their was no real dancing in this production, and their acting was, sorry to say, not very good.
I repeat what I said above. I am not certain what they were trying to accomplish. But I don’t think they accomplished it.