Mikhail Baryshnikov prances away with our hearts yet again in "Man in a Case."

The greatest dancer of his generation is more of a thespian here than anything else but there is still a world of magic to the quality of his movement. The ballet icon's lithe presence adds electricity to this whimsical deconstruction of two Anton Chekhov stories, "Man in a Case" and "About Love."

Cheekily adapted by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of the New York-based Big Dance Theater, this delicate 75-minute gem marries the edge of experimental theater with the melancholy of the Chekhovian impulse. While the piece never quite attains the emotional intensity one yearns for with Chekhov, it's shot through with startling juxtapositions of style and tone that demystify the great Russian playwright. Far less challenging and provocative than last year's "In Paris," in which Baryshnikov also starred, this avant-garde exploration of romance and regret runs through Feb. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The famous knock on Chekhov is that nothing happens. People talk. Time passes. Parson and Lazar amplify this sense of everyday ennui to great effect.

The actors here engage in their craft without any sense of artifice. At some points the ensemble simply sits around a table, staring at a computer and chatting and one is never entirely certain if it's part of the narrative or a commentary about theatrical convention. Certainly it's a postmodern approach that reminds us of the illusions of theater. There is no pretext of suspending disbelief.

The video collages, meanwhile, are quite vivid. The moon floats across the stage. The twitching of an eye is magnified to haunting proportions.

When faces are caught on film the characters look as lonely and alienated as they feel. Through the lens of the camera, we get the sense of a world in which no one can truly connect with anyone else but everyone is constantly under surveillance.

No one is more trapped than Belikov (Baryshnikov), a schoolmaster who prefers rules to people. A professor of Greek, he terrifies his students and puts off his colleagues. He is most content pondering his own uprightness while lying in a rectangular bed draped in white like a tomb. He is a man hopelessly out of sync with his time. As the narrator explains, "By forever praising the past, he was simply trying to justify his horror of reality."

Only the hope of love can pierce his veil of rigidity. Barbara (a magnetic Tymberly Canale) turns his life upside down with her free-spirited lifestyle (she rides a bike! she wears pink lace!) and he is tempted to renounce his repression forever.

Destiny is also a heartbreaker in "About Love," in which a man remembers the woman he loved and lost many years before. This time Canale plays a happily married woman who finds herself drawn to the man (Baryshnikov) who has become a trusted family confidante. They fall in love but hide their intimacy as they sit side by side at table, their hands smacking together and breaking apart like magnets.

To be sure Baryshnikov turns even tiny bits of physicality into grand balletic gestures. In one tableau, he tugs on the sleeves of a coat while rolling on the floor. In another interlude, he cuts a rug and gets chastised by the stage manager.

In a climactic scene, Belikov is flung backward from the top of a shadowy staircase. The ever nimble dancer tumbles in a fog of slow-motion and strobe lighting, his limbs all akimbo but still beautiful.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her 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
Through: Feb. 16
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45-$125, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org