Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps back into the spotlight at Berkeley Rep in "Man in a Case."

The ballet legend has long had a love for breaking new ground in postmodern dance and experimental theater circles. Last year, Berkeley Rep audiences watched him tread the boards in the elegant Ivan Bunin romance "In Paris." Now he's starring in a melancholy double bill inspired by two Chekhov short stories about love, loss and loneliness.

"Man in a Case," adapted for the stage by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater, is an edgy mash-up of great literature and high-tech multimedia that will both challenge and seduce the audience. The highly anticipated piece runs through Feb. 16 at Berkeley Rep.

Baryshnikov has been steeping in Chekhov ever since he was a little boy growing up in Riga, Latvia. He famously defected to the West in 1974 and became the toast of both the New York City Ballet under Balanchine and American Ballet Theatre. But Chekhov has always been part of his soul.

"The great Russian writers capture the universality of human experience, the tragedy of life, the beauty of it," says the dancer turned actor in his lyrical Russian accent. "It's all there in Chekhov."

Of course, the Oscar-nominated Baryshnikov, 65, has long been a Hollywood star (from "The Turning Point" to "Sex in the City"), but he simply can't resist the joys of the theater.

"There is nothing like it," he says. "The theater pushes you into a very dark place in your mind."

A veteran of the spotlight, he also craves the high-wire act of live performance.

"I love it because it scares me. Every time I step onstage, I get the same empty stomach, the same butterflies. You have to live up to the material, to do it justice."

He's also a huge fan of the Berkeley Rep audience and its embrace of the avant-garde.

"I had a great time there, because the audience is very diverse and very vibrant, which is what we need," he says. "Experimental theater demands the participation of the audience. It's a very complex process, a deconstruction of the text, and the audience has to welcome that level of complexity."

If Hollywood is usually dedicated to entertainment, the theater remains largely the realm of art, a stance which suits the ballet icon's aesthetic.

"I can't imagine what my life would be without art; it terrifies me to think about it," he says. "Life would be bloodless and senseless without it."

Misha, of course, is far from the only big-screen star who has graced Bay Area stages on a regular basis. Here's a roundup of recent performances that have kept local audiences star-struck.

  • Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart: The "X-Men" icons and theater legends had audiences and critics instantly smitten with their virtuosic turns in Pinter's "No Man's Land" at Berkeley Rep last summer. The pre-Broadway run of this exquisite revival was one of the rare times when A-list stars lived up to their glittering reputations. So often screen actors can't maintain their sparkle onstage, but these two thespians reminded us that it is possible to master both realms with equal elan. Here's hoping they return to the Rep sometime soon. Perhaps an encore trip for "Waiting for Godot?"

  • Rita Moreno: One of the rare actors to have pulled off the EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony), Moreno has become a regular guest star at Berkeley Rep. In recent years, the witty Hollywood veteran has shone as the mother in "The Glass Menagerie," the diva Maria Callas in "Master Class" and in her own life story, "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup." She's also maintained her day jobs in Hollywood, most recently as Fran Drescher's mom in "Happily Divorced."

  • Olympia Dukakis: The Oscar-winning actress has made herself at home at American Conservatory Theater many a time over the years, most notably in a series of Greek tragedies. Dukakis has brought intelligence and depth to roles in works from "Hecuba" to "Elektra." Her love of the classical may surprise those who know her best from movies such as "Steel Magnolias" and "Moonstruck."

  • Hugh Jackman: While best known as a superhero tough guy type, laid-back megastar Jackman is also a Tony-winning, die-hard song-and-dance man. He has shined in roles from the mutant Wolverine in the ferociously successful "X-Men" franchise to the flamboyantly gay icon Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz" on Broadway. Theater fans also love him for his loyalty to the stage, which explains the rapturous reception they gave to his one-man show "Back on Broadway." Hugely entertaining if not particularly deep, the piece debuted in San Francisco in 2011 before heading to Broadway.

  • Kevin Spacey: A Hollywood icon beloved for roles from "The Usual Suspects" to "American Beauty," Spacey went back to the stage big time when he took over as artistic director of London's venerable Old Vic theater. He continued the company's tradition of taking the show on the road when he brought his explosive "Richard III" to San Francisco in 2011. Spacey played the title role of the twisted villain, drenched in blood, endlessly grasping for the crown. It was a production that favored the visceral over the subtle, which turned off some critics, but it also excited many theatergoers to the core.

    Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her reviews at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

    'Man in a case'
    Adapted from two Anton Chekhov stories, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov
    When: Saturday through Feb. 16
    Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
    Tickets: $45-$125, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org