The moments in “The Orchard” that suggest the current Russian invasion of Ukraine would surely get the most attention in a more conventionally focused adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard”: About halfway through the production, which is both online and on stage at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through July 3, an ominous looking “passerby” suddenly appears, wearing all-black battledress with a helmet, and speaks in Russian. At the end of the play, the cherry orchard isn’t chopped down; via video projection, it explodes.
But these touches must compete with many others in this overly busy version of Chekhov’s play, which is conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, the Kyiv-born, Boston-based artistic director of the always-innovating Arlekin Players Theater. Last year, Golyak turned this same 1904 play about the fading of the Russian aristocracy into an online video game (“chekhovOS” — OS as in operating system), starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht. This year, “The Orchard” employs the same two stars, but in a completely new piece – actually, two completely new pieces, because the online and the onstage version offer different experiences.
As in any version of Chekhov’s play, Lyubov Ranevskaya (Hecht) is a loving, generous Russian aristocrat who has never had to worry about money and so is reckless with it. She returns after a long stay in Paris to her estate in the Russian countryside that features a renowned cherry orchard. The estate has been put up for auction, since she has no money to pay the mortgage, and she ignores the entreaties of Lopakhin (Nael Nacer), the grandson of a serf who is now a wealthy merchant, to generate an income that will save the estate by chopping down the cherry orchard and creating summer homes for the newly enriched middle class.
As I watched in the third-floor theater of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, I found Hecht beatific as Ranevskaya, Nacer a suitable gruff Lopakhin who smartly avoids performative villainy, and Baryshnikov persuasive (somewhat alarmingly so) as the feeble, dying manservant Firs. Among the attention-getting choices in the production is the casting of John McGinty, a native user of American Sign Language, in the role of Pyotr Trofimov, former tutor of Ranevskaya’s son (who had drowned years earlier.) There is one clever scene in which Lopakhin attempts to communicate with Trofimov by using broad clumsy gestures that don’t remotely resemble Trofimov’s elegant ASL – unlike the aristocratic characters in the play, who we’ve seen sign comfortably with Trofimov. This makes vivid (and comic) Lopakhin’s lack of education and even his peasant roots.
But as fine as they are, the cast has some challenges, created by the director. They must perform behind a scrim on which is projected close-ups of their own images, as well as various words and charts, and amid constantly falling and accumulating blue pieces of paper, which I presume represent leaves from the cherry trees, as well as the falling prospects of the aristocracy. And the nine humans have to share the stage with two robots. One of them, huge and ever-present center stage, looks like a futuristic construction crane; may have a mind of its own; and seems clearly to represent the destruction inherent in “progress.”
The other, small and intermittent, is like a pet dog; it even does tricks. It represents…I have no idea, but it’s weirdly entertaining.
Considered individually, Golyak’s directorial choices struck me as fresh, if not always straightforward, but taken together they felt at odds with one another — a series of touches that become distractions. I was impressed by the stage production, but I wasn’t always engaged with it.
So I tried the online version the next day — and liked it much better.
It began with Mikhail Baryshnikov looming outside a convincing virtual replica of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. He was not Firs now; but Anton Chekhov, and we followed him inside the building. I’m not sure I took advantage of all the dreamlike rooms you could enter, but I witnessed enough to be thrilled: There was Baryshnikov speaking as Chekhov in Russian with English subtitles, obviously taken from the playwright’s letters. At one point, he told Hecht as his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, that she will be performing the main character in his next play. “Your role: A complete fool,” he says. She gives him a look. “A good fool….She’s clever, kind-hearted, and at the same time distracted; she’s gentle with everyone, and there’s always a smile on her face.” He’s talking about Lyubov Ranevskaya .
After about fifteen minutes we on computer screens joined the audience in the theater watching the live performers who were on the stage, but with two differences: We could change the camera angles of what we were watching (long shot, close up), and, we could bid at the auction of Ranevskaya’s estate.
The in-person performance ended with the curtain call. The virtual performance continued past that with a view again of the outside of the Baryshnikov Art Center with big red “Sold” signs on it, and Baryshnikov (Chekhov? Firs?) walking forlornly away with a box of his belongings. But that’s not all: We were given an option of scanning a QR code — and there was Mikhail Baryshnikov in 3D right in front of me.
This was an example of what’s called Augmented Reality. If “The Orchard” wasn’t the best Chekhov I’ve ever seen on stage, it was the best Chekhov I’ve ever seen floating around my apartment.
Online and on stage at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through July 3
Running time: two hours, no intermission
Tickets: In person: $39-$125; Virtual: $29
Conceived, adapted, and directed by Igor Golyak
Based on The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Carol Rocamora
Scenic design by Anna Fedorova, costume design by Oana Botez, lighting design by Yuki Nakase Link, projection design by Alex Basco Koch, sound design by Tei Blow, music composition by Jakov Jakoulov, emerging technologies design by Adam Paikowsky, Robotics design by Tom Sepe, hair and makeup design by Anna Hrustaleva, and Director of American Sign Language by Seth Gore.
Virtual Experience: virtual scenic design by Anna Fedorova, in partnership with Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens, Athomas Goldberg of Lifelike & Believable Animation Design, and Unreal designers Daniel Cormino, Yu-Jun Yeh and Emily Cho, with virtual sound design by Alexey Prosvirnin, and interactivity design by Sasha Huh.
Cast: Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya, Elise Kibler as Varya, Juliet Brett as Anya, Darya Denisova as Charlotta, John McGinty as Trofimov, Nael Nacer as Lophakin, Mark Nelson as Gaev, Ilia Volok as the passerby, Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov and Firs