Long before Joni Mitchell decried the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, Anton Chekhov’s emotionally paralyzed Ranevskaya family auctioned off their cherished cherry orchard to make way for summer homes. His last play, The Cherry Orchard, centers on Madame Lyubov who is hopelessly in debt after years of living in Paris. She and her daughters have returned to their estate for one last party and it is only then that they reflect on the once-prized fruit trees that will be chopped down to make way for modernization. Like many of Chekhov’s works, there is a sense that happier alternatives have simply slipped out of reach.
In Arlekin’s (zero-G) imaginative retelling, The Orchard, the work is simultaneously performed live and streamed to a global audience. Typically, live streams have been made available because there was no audience permitted at the theater or it was presented in a way meant to simulate as closely as possible the live experience. This is the first theatrical piece I’ve seen that deliberately gives those watching from home a different experience from those seated at the venue.
While it is simply wonderful to make this production available worldwide and Ukrainian director Igor Golyak has unique experience using virtual reality to enhance traditional theater, it seems unnecessary to have augmented this particular work with an interactive component. The video-game-like curtain-raiser features various rooms of the house containing Mikhail Baryshnikov as Chekhov reading some the author’s more personal words in the original Russian. Much of the interaction during the play involves being able to select something other than the main camera, though the few times I switched to another unit, it wasn’t revealing so much as disorienting. And it was impossible to avoid FOMO when just before the auction of the property — during which the audience makes non-binding bids with proceeds going to support the company — the home audience was addressed directly by matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya while a completely different scene was taking place on stage.
Furthermore, the production is straight-up terrific and needs no embellishment. Golyak, whose homeland is currently undergoing life changing destruction and loss, has harnessed those feelings of disconnection and grief and made additions to the work that are engaging and meaningful. The elegant script was translated by Carol Rocamora, who preserves the poetry while tightening the storyline and punching up the more farcical elements. On scenic designer Anna Fedorova’s all-blue stage, blossoms litter the floor and even the nursery room teddy bear and hobby horse appear melancholy. The backdrop envelops the players in dramatic projections by Alex Basco Koch, including lines of dialogue, stars and planets, and the faces of the enraptured audience. The onstage robotics by Tom Sepe lend an eery futuristic and fatalistic feel to the tale.
The cast is led by the sublime Jessica Hecht, who gives Ranevskaya’s delicacy meaning and tenderness. Baryshnikov appears again as Firs, the faithful older servant. His interpretation of an aging, submissive body practically collapses in on itself and he never stops being fully present, even providing a warm interaction with a mechanical dog. The clowning of Arlekin Players regular Darya Denisova as Charlotta the soon-to-be-displaced governess, adds appropriately discordant levity. While Nael Nacer’s booming voice is just perfect for sounding the alarm as Lopakhin, the man best positioned to win the orchard his ancestors tended to as slaves. John McGinty has been cast as Trofimov, though it’s unclear whether making the perpetual student deaf is a comment on communication between characters or Golyak just appreciates McGinty’s talent. Juliet Brett, Elise Kibler, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok round out the company.
As a fresh take on a classic, The Orchard blossoms under Golyak’s knowing hand. The themes of class division, misplaced materialism, and cultural loss are sadly timely and touching. A quick read of The Cherry Orchard will only deepen your understanding of events. Live performances run through Sunday, July 3, and take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) . Showtimes are Tuesday – Thursday at 7PM, Friday – Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and face masks must be worn throughout the two hour runtime. Prices for the intimate live show run from $39 to $125. The virtual experience — which requires a plugged-in laptop or desktop — is $29. There are bundles to purchase both live and streaming together. For tickets and additional information, visit www.TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.
A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored – Live Stream
January 6th will never again be just a date, but rather an historic occurrence. Some consider what happened in 2021 to be the most serious attack against democracy. Others saw brave patriots who took action when they felt those same institutions had betrayed them and their leader. A third group finds the entire episode to be just so much more political blah-blah-blah that has nothing to do with them. All of these viewpoints are presented by the unreliable narrator and sole character in Roland Tec’s A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored, a live Zoom-based theatrical event.
A ticket to this happening comes with precise instructions. We have volunteered for a citizen panel. Check-in is at 7:45 PM and while the piece will conclude by 9:00PM we are requested to stay for “processing”. In order to participate fully, we will keep our cameras and microphones on and wear headphones to eliminate extraneous noise. (I further recommend using the Full Screen mode and Do Not Disturb to block out any notifications.) After hearing his story, our judgement of “the subject” will be legally binding.
These directions set the expectation for a serious and intense engagement with the solitary character, Benj. Eery music and distant voices that we hear upon entry only heighten the mood. As portrayed by writer Tec, Benj is an attempt to create an Everyman in what is becoming the everyday experience of many. Shot at a slight diagonal, this man clearly needs to clean house in all the meanings of that phrase. His headphones are askew and there’s a ladder and a towel behind him hinting at a mess beyond. COVID has kept him home alone more than at any time in his life. Most of his news is delivered through social media. New connections are only made online, where it is often hard to tell who is genuine and who is a bot. The valley has never been more uncanny than in Benj’s landscape.
As directed by Leigh Strimbeck, Benj speaks in a manner that alternates between rushed and halting. He shares his circumstances just before and shortly after the actions that took place on January 6th, with asides that give insight into his personal life. How deeply you are touched will depend on how well you are managing your own feelings.
The distractions are many. Chat has been left open, which allows for some important intervention but also unnecessary prattle. One of the disadvantages of conversations over Zoom is that the highlighted speaker is the loudest instead of the most important. With over 30 microphones open, those featured including a man with a persistent cough, a woman making clattering noises, and several very personal laughs. Perhaps this is meant as a metaphor for how easily our attention is diverted from discomfort. How deeply can we ever react to something on a screen? But there is no question that the technical set-up made it difficult to remain fully absorbed in what we had been told was a civic duty.
The section that leaves a lasting impression is the post show discussion, which on the night I attended was led by retired psychologist Henry “Hank” Greenspan, a playwright/historian whose work focuses on survivors of genocide. Our audience was less invested in whether Benj should suffer any consequence than in finding productive outlets for their own grief and discouragement. Reactions were only partially to the play and the rest to very real life. One woman pointed out that her feelings are not nagging at all, but in her face screaming 24/7.
That a short work like A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored could bring forth that level of emotion at this time of perpetual overwhelm is noteworthy. And while there are problems with Zoom, it does allow for sharing of the work across the country. There is one more scheduled opportunity to be a witness on Wednesday, September 7, at 8PM. Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchases on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/302460416247.