Man in a Case: Single-Handedly Upping Hartford’s Hip Factor

Mikhail Baryshnikov has had a hell of a life. He defected to Canada from the USSR, he danced and directed with acclaimed companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (ABT). He moved into acting and became Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend in Sex in the City (where someone reminded me that he hit her, shame on him). But, this legend’s life was not complete until he came to Hartford (for the second time).

Hartford Stage’s current production, Man in a Case is an adaptation of two short stories by Anton Chekov (yes, fancy and smarty pants) “starring” Misha, as Baryshnikov is known to his inner circle. But, unlike any production of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard I’ve seen, this is totally modern and edgy and made for a technological generation. I’ll fully admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this show. I like funky productions with multiple elements and appreciate non-linear story telling, but thought there was a chance that this might be “too much” based on some early reviews. I will say that Baryshnikov, while probably a good selling point, doesn’t shine as the star of the show because the rest of the ensemble is just so talented and engaging.

Two hunters (they wear hunting garb and talk about shooting stuff) are the “narrators” of these stories, but they do it via dialogue with each other, not by talking to the audience. Through this, the audience gets a little glimpse into their personalities too. The stories themselves are acted out in pieces as vignettes on stage. Interspersed are video clips, slides, sound effects, music and other eclectic elements. Members of the tech team are on stage and themselves effects, props, and scenery.

The video effects and sound are so imperative to the production they become like another character. They create a more enhanced, sensory experience for the audience. Think about what goes through your head when someone is telling you a story, or if you’re remembering a story yourself. The entire thing is not played out in your head, but in snippets–a flash of a picture, seeing a few moments of imagery, a couple measures of a melody.

This is interwoven so beautifully into the show, bringing out even more of the storytelling quality. There’s a fine line between being evocative and bashing you over the head with “THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD BE FEELING AND THINKING OF!” Man in a Case succeeds in eliciting more thoughtfulness–as opposed to just being gratuitous bullshit, which fancy technical shows can be.

Now that I’m done drooling over the coolness of the production, let’s get on to the performers in the five person cast. I have to say performers because they were all more than just actors. Because it’s a Baryshnikov Production, there was of course dancing and movement–to the point that much of the show had more than just normal “blocking”, and ventured into choreography. There was also music–both voice and instrumental (accordion, acoustic guitar) that was surprisingly unobtrusive. Baryshnikov wasn’t the star, but a member of the cast. The two hunters (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo) were remarkable–multi-talented, great storytellers, and so engaging. The actress who played the female love interests in the two stories (Tymberly Canale) was both effervescent and passionate (not in the sex kitten way).

Overall, this was way more edgy and cool than I thought I’d ever really see in Hartford. This can be attributed to artistic direction duo Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, who are internationally acclaimed for what they do. What’s so impressive is that they chose to spend time doing what they do here in Hartford. Perhaps it will prove to be too sharp for some Nutmeggers to handle (I do know of some folks who have not liked it), but I hope the Land of Steady Habits will surprise me and embrace more of this type of production on the main stage. It sure as hell ain’t no Sex in the City. Three out of three salt shakers because awesome and unexpected is always salty. Keep it coming, Hartford Stage!

Full Disclosure: I went to high school with the sound designer. He might have hated me, so that makes this review that much more “fair and balanced”. So there.