In real life Mikhail Baryshnikov is definitely not a Chekhov character. Instead of settling into a boring, if comfortable, retirement, the famed dancer (now in his mid-60s) is constantly reinventing himself. A brief early stint in the movies (“The Turning Point” and “White Nights”) set the stage for later dramatic appearances on Broadway (“Metamorphosis”) and with his own Baryshnikov Arts Center, as well as a high-profile run on television’s “Sex and the City.” Not a Chekhov man at all, yet he inhabits two of them completely in “Man in a Case,” the engaging and thought-provoking performance piece now in a brief run at Berkeley Rep.
Both as the crabbed, rule-bound introvert Belikov of the title story, a man who belatedly falls in love with a free spirit only to be crushed by his own inhibitions, and another smitten lover who suffers the same fate in a different way in the tender “About Love” that follows, Baryshnikov is skillful and winning in expressing the emotion and humor in the tales.
He is far from alone. Four other actors — plus two sound guys who occasionally step in to swell the scene — make up a true ensemble. All are performers with the award-winning New York Big Dance Theater, helmed by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, who co-adapted and directed this piece. Lazar himself is one of the actors, with the talented Chris Giarmo and Aaron Mattocks the other two men. Tymberly Canale is the lone female, first playing the light-hearted Barbara to Baryshnikov’s somber Greek teacher in “Case,” and then switching to the quiet, sympathetic wife with whom Baryshnikov’s character falls in love in the second story. She is a dancer as well (choreography by Parson) and, yes, there is a little dancing in this show, just enough to show that the star has retained his chops in that department as well.
The stories are framed by a pretty hilarious bit wherein a group of hunters talk turkey — quite literally — late into the night. In the midst of the boasting and gun comparisons and mating calls one will say something like: “Did I ever tell you about the time …” and we’re off into a tale. And, for all the humor, there is a depth to these stories, both political and emotional. Subtle use of video, whether on pull-down screens or actual TV sets, enhances the action on the versatile set, designed by Peter Ksander. Some of the stage pictures (lighting by Jennifer Tipton) are astonishing, as when the phantoms of Belikov’s frantic dreams show up on the curtains of his bed or everybody suddenly whips out an umbrella to attend his funeral.
A most satisfying theatrical experience, deftly delivered in under 90 minutes. Perhaps that is the only quibble with “Man in a Case.” It’s so absorbing and entertaining that it leaves you wanting more. You might come for Baryshnikov, but you will stay for the whole show.