by Shelley A. Sackett
Anton Chekhov’s play, ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ opened at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904, under the direction of the actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski. During rehearsals, the director rewrote Act Two, changing the play from Chekhov’s intended light and lively comedy into a tragedy. Chekhov is said to have disliked the Stanislavski production so much that he considered his play “ruined.”
One can’t help but wonder what the Russian playwright would make of ‘The Orchard,’ Igor Golyak’s creatively incomparable and technologically unparalleled reimagining of this iconic classic.
The live version (there is also a simultaneous livestream version with many bells and whistles and interactive options) takes place on a surreal, stylized stage anchored by an enormous white robot arm that is strangely animate and huggable, like the Pixar hopping desk lamp on steroids. It also has the less endearing quality of a giant dental X-ray machine or unipedal CT scan.
The stage floor is covered in fluffy piles and the entire area is flooded in a blue light that feels like a cross between a dreamy moonscape and a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Are these mounds of fallen cherry blossoms or radioactive fallout? A Holo-Gauze screen (a highly reflective and transparent projection net which supports 3D polarized projections) separates the audience from the players. Large scale projections connect live and virtual audiences with feedback loops that expand the otherworldly sense of chaos and charade.
This is not a production for literalists, purists or those unable or willing to let go of the notion of control when it comes to live theater viewing. It also helps to have a cursory familiarity with Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ to keep from getting totally disoriented when Golyak takes us on a chaotic journey down the rabbit hole of his inventive artistry.
There’s so much happening onstage that looking for plot threads is as frustrating as it is fruitless.
In a nutshell, the Chekhov version revolves around Madame Ranevskaya (played by the ethereally luminous Jessica Hecht), an aristocratic Russian land-owner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of a former serf named Lopakhin (played by the prodigiously talented Nael Nacer). As they struggle with the destruction of their world as they knew it, Ranevskaya’s family leaves their home to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down.
Chekhov intended his comedic farce to dramatize the socioeconomic forces in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of serfdom in the mid-19th century, and the decline of the power of the aristocracy.
Seeing a new riff on a Russian classic, however, is hardly what packed the house on opening night.
The real reason many attended the performance was, of course, to see the extraordinary Mikhail Baryshnikov in person performing as Firs, the 87-year-old former serf turned manservant. The esteemed actor and ballet genius did not disappoint.
The opening moments of the black-clad Firs twirling dervish-like and being blown about by the wind are worth the price of admission. Baryshnikov pirouettes across the stage with breathtaking grace and ease. For the remainder of the play, he handily steals every scene he is in.
The problem is that watching him is like trying to drive at night through the cloudy lens of a cataract. While the Holo-Gauze screen adds immeasurably to the virtual production, it is an annoying impediment for those watching live, like sitting in a seat marked “obstructed view.”
Nonetheless, ‘The Orchard’ is worth seeing if for no other reason than to follow the contemporary take the extraordinary Golyak has on the ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ His production reimagines both the classic and the ways in which the theater experience itself can be reinvented.
It is also great fun. There is a mechanical dog (Robotics design is by Tom Sepe), the captivatingly whimsical performance of Darya Denisova as Charlotta, and Anna Fedorova’s set enchantingly lit by Yuki Nakase Link. Oana Botez’s costumes are added eye candy.
Having seen both the live and online versions, I must say that rather than being duplicative or fungible, they are actually complementary visions of a single experience. Neither is complete without the other and each sheds light on its counterpart.
In the online version, for example, viewers can choose the camera angles from which they want to see the action and can exit the main stage to various other virtual rooms of the old house in which the play occupies but one part. It’s as if the audience has been put in charge of its own theatrical experience.
The live version has the opposite effect. With all the projected images and splicing in of the zoom gallery shots of the online audience, we are not only aware of the play’s concomitant virtual experience; we are captives in it.
When one of the actors say, “I have this strange feeling that I’ve just landed on the Moon,” the audience nods in agreement.
Golyak, whose family fled the Ukraine’s antisemitism in the 1990s, is a global leader in the virtual theater movement. In a press release, he highlighted the play’s personal and ongoing relevance as an analogy for so many current societal ills.
“This is a story about the delicate relationships at the center of a family facing the end of the world as they know it,” Golyak said. “We are living through an unimaginable time of change and destruction with the war in Ukraine. As humans, we are perpetually losing our cherry orchards, losing our worlds. This play is about us today.”
‘The Orchard’ — Conceived and Directed by Igor Golyak, based on ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekhov. Anna Fedorova, Scenic Designer. Yuki Nakase Link, Lighting Designer. Oana Botez, Costume Designer. Alex Basco Koch, Projection Designer. Tei Blow, Sound Designer. Jakov Jakoulov, Composer. Tom Sepe, Robotics Designer. Presented by Groundswell Theatricals and Arlekin Players and its Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab, at Emerson Paramount Center, the Robert J Orchard Stage, 559 Washington St., Boston through November 13.
For tickets and information, go to: https://www.arlekinplayers.com/the-orchard/