Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

The Orchard – NYC and Live Stream

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.  

Denisova, Hecht, Brett and Nelson in The Orchard; photo by Maria Baranova

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.  

The Present

(Note: This review is based on the December 24, 2016 preview performance.)

The PresentThe supremely talented Cate Blanchett has come to Broadway.  Unlike many film celebrities who flounder on stage, Ms. Blanchett is the former co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, where she also made her theater debut nearly 25 years ago.  The same incredible nuance she brings to her on-screen characters is alive and in proper proportion in her role as Anna in The Present, a modern reinterpretation of an unpublished play by Anton Chekhov.  I would recommend this show simply for the opportunity to bathe in her deeply considered and exceptional work.

Furthermore, there are additional elements to be enjoyed here.  Just as her character has invited friends to celebrate her birthday, Ms. Blanchett and playwright/husband Andrew Upton called upon close associates to share in this production.  Richard Roxburgh — who is technically the star as the pivotal Mikhail— has played opposite her many times including in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.  When I say he makes a terrific libertine, it’s meant to be a compliment.  The cast is rounded out by other actors who have collaborated frequently at STC and elsewhere.  There is an easy flow among them that only intensity over time can produce.  The range of feelings comes across as genuine even when the words sound less so.  Of particular note is Chris Ryan who gives the fragile and naive Sergei remarkable depth in his few scenes.

If you‘ve ever slogged through a so-called lost work, you can imagine that the finding of the play itself is a mixed blessing.  The original piece is a 300 page rambling tale which was locked away in Chekhov’s desk where it was unearthed after his death.   Upton is certainly skilled at updating classics, giving them new life for a modern audience.  This is a more challenging task when the piece in question has been deliberately set aside by its creator after being rejected by its intended leading lady.  Particularly adroit at restyling pre-revolutionary Russian drama, Upton has previously adapted Uncle Vanya plus two Gorkys and a Bulgakov.  For this unnamed tome, Upton chose to move the period to the more accessible 1990s and age the characters to add believable complexity to their emotional lives.  (I recommend reading his author’s note provided in the program to help you jump into the world and understand the relationships he has sculpted out of Chekhov’s rock.)

The first act of The Present is nearly two hours long, yet it moves steadily on waves of insightful conversation and palpable emotion.  It is surprisingly the far shorter second act that gets bogged down when the vodka-soaked characters more consistently speechify and the plot turns frustratingly soapy.  Director John Crowley has added a naturalness – if also an aural challenge – to the action by having his talent move about without any conventional awareness of the placement of the audience.  Alice Babidge provides a clean canvas for the colorful characters with stark scenic and costume design.  Only sad balloons and tacky streamers are employed to communicate the less-than-festive air surrounding Anna’s birthday bash.  Stefan Gregory’s edgy music and sound design add several strong jump-out-of-your seats moments.

If you relish the opportunity to see deeply connected old friends *play* deeply connected old friends, make time to catch this somewhat uneven endeavor.  Limited engagement ends March 19, 2017.  For tickets and information visit http://thepresentbroadway.com.  Shorties like me should note that the mezzanine of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre has those high hand rails attached to each aisle seat and along the edge of the balcony.  At 5’1” I was just able to see over them from the third row.