The day before I was scheduled to view “chekhovOS” (OS as in operating system) — featuring a literally game cast including Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov, as well as his daughter Anna Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht — I received an email with a “secret message” from the characters of the long-dead Russian playwright. Addressed “Dear People of the Future,” the characters declared: “We have been existing inside that system, without happiness and without hope, for over 100 years. We, the characters, reject the Chekhov Operating System.” They urged us to “help us escape” by changing their fate: “If you are asked whether Lyuba Ranevskaya should sell the Cherry Orchard; if you are asked whether the Three Sisters should move to Moscow…say YES.”
So is laid out in a nutshell the clever premise of Arlekin Players Theater’s “chekhovOS/an experimental game/,” which presents a Chekhov play as if a live, interactive virtual video game.
Our host and guide Natasha Prozorov, a character from “Three Sisters,” (portrayed by Darya Denisova), ushers us into an elegantly designed and persuasive game world via Zoom on our laptops, chats live with randomly selected members of the audience, and instructs us how to turn our smartphones into game controllers, to navigate through a series of choices – the play of Chekhov’s we want to see performed; the order of the scenes; the fate of the characters.
There is something you should know, though, in advance, especially if you’re a gamer, and, yes, it’s a spoiler: “chekhovOS” is not really a video game; it’s a simulacrum of a video game. Or, more precisely: It’s theater about a video game about theater.
Whatever play you choose, the winner will be “The Cherry Orchard”; you will then get the preordained order to see the scenes, no matter which order you choose; and it’s a given whether or not the cherry orchard will be chopped down, no matter how you vote.
I tell you this so that you know what to expect and are not disappointed, but also to point out how brilliant this production is, because we the audience members thus become one with the languishing characters in the Chekhov play, who are stuck with their inevitable fate, no matter what they and we desire. In “chekhovOS/an experimental game,” we seem to have entered into a virtual world; we’ve actually entered into Chekhov’s worldview.
As inspired as this is thematically, the result is something of a mixed bag as an experience. The selected (pre-recorded) scenes from “The Cherry Orchard” can be well-acted and affecting; the live Zoom chat with fellow audience members can be engaging; there is humor in the scenes with Natalie, and some fascinating historical tidbits in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s interludes, when he recites in subtitled Russian from Chekhov’s letters (“It has turned out to be no drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce,” he says of The Cherry Orchard – a conclusion with which his first director, Konstantin Stanislavski, disagreed.) If this isn’t exactly sensory overload, these disparate elements feel less like component parts than mutual distractions. I might have needed more time and space, for example, to absorb Hecht’s performance, an unusual interpretation of Ranevskaya. The long-absent aristocratic landowner, who is nostalgic for the past and in mourning for her dead, is usually depicted as commanding, even if befuddled by business matters. Yet in Hecht’s hands, she comes off as an aging flower child of the 60s who seems perennially high.
What may be best about “chekhovOS” is the feeling that it’s an example of the sweet fruit produced during an otherwise bitter year. The production is officially part of the International Online Theatre Festival, whose aim is the “redefinition, reimagining and Renaissance of 21st century theatre.” Chekhov’s late 19th century characters might feel trapped, but, thanks to director Igor Golyak’s work-in-progress noodling, Chekhov’s early 21st century audiences could well feel liberated by the promise not just of reopening, but of reimagining.
ChekhovOS/an experimental game
Live every Sunday in June
running time: 75 minutes, plus a talkback
Inspired by The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak
Produced by Igor Golyak & Sara Stackhouse
Cast: Jessica Hecht, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Bortnik, Darya Denisova, Jeffrey Hayenga, Melanie Moore, Nael Nacer and Mark Nelson