Mikhail Baryshnikov is a magnetic presence in “Man in a Case.” Even when he’s sitting perfectly still, the great dance artist is the moving force in this slender but beguiling 75-minute adaptation of two Anton Chekhov short stories at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Created by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater, the show is an inventive mix of Russian melancholy and contemporary humor with high-tech visuals and Old World narrative. Music and movement buoy the production, which begins with the title story and ends with Chekhov’s “About Love.”
Baryshnikov, in his second Berkeley Rep appearance after he made his company debut as the star of “In Paris” in 2012, is the central character of each tale.
In the title story, he plays Belikov, an insular professor whose courtship of an extroverted young woman ends in humiliation. In “About Love,” he’s a lonely single man hopelessly in love with another man’s wife.
Lazar and Parson evoke the Chekhovian atmosphere in decisive touches — actors in wintry coats telling hunting stories with videos of village life projected on big screens. A name-day party yields a mournful song and an exuberant dance.
The action spills across the borders of Peter Ksander’s bisected set, with Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, Tei Blow’s sound designs and Jeff Larson’s video creating the warmth of a parlor and the claustrophobic chill of Belikov’s bedchamber, a rain-soaked cemetery.
At the same time, the directors keep the action transparent. Blow and Larson remain onstage, running effects on laptops. Peppy contemporary songs inject humorous notes.
The actors walk the stylistic line with finesse. Tymberly Canale is alluring as Barbara, a luscious sugar plum of a woman whose reckless edge draws Belikov like a moth to a flame. She’s just as indelible as Anna, the graceful and refined wife in “About Love.”
Chris Giarmo’s Ivan and Lazar’s Burkin make wry contributions and Aaron Mattocks exudes menace as Kovalenko.
Yet the production doesn’t go very deep, and the two halves don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Still, Baryshnikov’s performance is riveting. Whether he’s tumbling down a flight of stairs, dancing to a jazzy melody, describing a full moon or simply sitting motionless, it’s impossible to look away. He’s the embodiment of Chekhov’s humanity, a man caught in the exquisite and unbearable ecstasy of unhappiness.
Man in a Case
Presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes Feb. 16
Tickets: $45 to $125
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org