An anachronistic reinvention of Anton Chekhov The cherry orchard, the acclaimed Russian playwright’s last work, written in 1903, is now making its Off-Broadway debut in a limited engagement at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Conceived, adapted and directed by Igor Golyak – the Ukrainian-born Founder and Artistic Director Producer of Arlekin Players Theater & Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, who developed and produced it – The orchard combines cutting-edge futuristic technology with historical (tragi-)comedy, as translated by New York-based educator and writer Carol Rocamora, with additional material created by Golyak, to emphasize the theme of our lives and our world constantly changing (not always for the better, as we have seen in recent years with COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine).
The tale follows the aristocratic Ranevskaya family and their staff as they grapple with the loss of their ancestral home and eponymous lands – and, with it, the life they have always known – through the threat of foreclosure, impending auction of property, and the socio-political decline of their class in the period between the emancipation of the serfs of 1861 and the coming Russian revolution of 1917. Although warned of the dire circumstances and offered a solution to the problem by subdividing the land and building summer cottages for rent, Madame Ranevskaya foolishly ignores the reality of the situation, clings to her memories of the past, and remains in a state of denial, spending the money she no longer has and enjoying the pleasures of the cherry orchard (which will inevitably be felled after the auction by the new owner).
An excellent cast embodies the divergent origins, status and perspectives of classic Chekhov characters, led by the exceptional Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya and Mikhail Baryshnikov as his 87-year-old servant, Firs Nikolaevich. Both turn to subtly humorous and empathetic performances – her as the charming, authoritative and out-of-touch landlord of the indebted estate, often condescending and unknowingly insulting, mourning the loss of her young son who died there and unable to bear the thought of losing his beloved cherry trees, but continued to laugh, to love and to enjoy the beauty of nature; him as a now doddering and senile elder who also laughably reveres the past and his position within the family, passed down from generation to generation. As she plans to flee to her ex-lover’s home in Paris, where she had previously fled after the death of her husband and son, he remains, forgotten in the empty house, as the others leave, the trees are falling, and he is about to breathe his last. Although Chekhov called the play a comedy, the elements of tragedy are also well captured in their stellar depictions.
The lead actors are backed by a handsome cast of seven, with Mark Nelson as Ranevskaya’s equally oblivious and carefree brother Leonid; Juliet Brett and Elise Kibler as her daughters, the idealistic Anya and the hardworking Varya; John McGinty as Pyotir Trofimov, Anya’s love interest who believes he is “above love” and represents the new utopian vision of the future; Nael Nacer as businessman Lopakhin, the grandson of Ranevskaya estate serfs, who advises the family on how to save the property from seizure, then buys it at auction when they ignore his suggestions; the wonderful Darya Denisova as Charlotta, Anya’s housekeeper, who performs captivating magic tricks to entertain others; and Ilia Volok as the strange passer-by who encroaches on the leisure of idle aristocrats, as their world is on the verge of collapse.
Although Chekhov’s story and moral are told well by the actors, the current production incorporates a barrage of the latest post-modern elements of robotics (designed by Tom Sepe and a dotdotdash.io team led by Adam Paikowsky, with an adorable quadruped robot provided by Graisin Robotics), holographs (designed by Golyak), live and pre-recorded video projections (by Alex Basco Koch), as well as illusory scenography (by Anna Fedorova), lighting (by Yuki Link ), music (by Jakov Jakoulov) and sound (by Tei Blow), which contrast with the time of the story and authentic period costumes (by Oana Botez).
Although the technology is masterfully executed, the concept is interesting and the intention is to indicate the advance of time, the endless changes in the world and the uncertainty of what the future holds, it tends to harm to performances and to bombard the audience with indulgent and unnecessary futuristic gimmicks. And the dialogue passages in Russian and French, designed to highlight the lack of understanding and communication between the characters, only serve to confuse viewers who don’t speak the languages and anxiously gazed at the scrim below for a translation during of representation. I attended (while Trofimov’s segments of American Sign Language, conducted by Seth Gore, were translated correctly in the screening and incorrectly by Anya, cleverly exposing her tendency to believe what she wanted, not what he wanted told him).
In addition to the in-person production, The orchard is presented in a hybrid format, offering a simultaneous interactive livestream that intersects in real time with the live performance. The virtual experience (which I did not see) allows the public to walk through the property, rendered online in 3D, explore the rooms of the estate and discover artifacts from the past such as letters, keepsakes and ongoing play at the theater, which she eventually connects with. The online experience creative team includes virtual stage design by Anna Fedorova, in partnership with Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens; Athomas Goldberg for designing realistic and believable animations; Unreal creators Daniel Cormino, Yu-Jun Yeh and Emily Cho; virtual sound design by Alexey Prosvirnin; and interactivity design by Sasha Huh.
If you like to merge innovative technology and traditional theatre, this is a show that will win you over with its experimental approach. If you’re a purist and respect the classics for the timelessness and relatability of their themes, without needing to rework or update, you’ll most likely find this adaptation whimsical and entertaining.
Duration: approximately 1h45 without intermission.
The orchard plays through Sunday, July 3, 2022, at Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37e Street, New York. For tickets (priced at $29 for the livestream, $39-$125 for the in-person show, and a discounted package for both), go on line. Everyone must present proof of COVID-19 vaccination and photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times while inside.