Tag Archives: Darya Denisova

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.  


Witness – Live Stream

Streaming multi-media production Witness arrives on our screens at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise in our country.  Incorporating material from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and employing live actors in a virtual space, the docudrama uses the journey of the MS St. Louis to explore the history of persecution of the Jews.  In May of 1939, the cruise ship filled with Jews escaping the Nazis was on its way to Havana.  According to museum records, of the 937 onboard, only 18 were granted visas.  The rest were turned away from both Cuba and the United States and sent back to Western Europe.  Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, the work threads together the lives of those ill-fated passengers with stories of more recent Russian Jewish immigrants like Golyak himself as well as contemporary headline-making hate crimes.

Audience members are requested to arrive at the site ten minutes early dressed in period costume with drink in hand.  “Joining” the crowd on the ship is easy and a quick sound check ensures that you will get the full audio experience (or take a moment to reload the page.)  Dialogue is spoken in multiple languages and subtitled in English.

The first act uses as a framework the talent show that was an actual shipboard activity.  Against a beautifully rendered virtual environment created by Daniel Cormino, the production pulls us into the main room of the ship for a performance which blends vaudevillian entertainment with experiences of the real passengers.  Director Golyak allows the camera to wander as our eyes might.  Two women cleverly “figure skate” using their fingers in sand while recounting the Kristallnacht.  A man builds a house of cards while vividly describing the displacement of families.  After each one, the audience is asked to award one to four stars.  Throughout, the Emcee (Gene Ravvin) — seemingly the only character who knows he is in a green screen studio — uses slapstick humor to keep the energy flowing.  And Lady Liberty (Darya Denisova) selects the lottery numbers which summon the next participant to the stage.  It is an uneasy blend that is quite effective at times, particularly when the ghostly shipboard audience is in view. 

Gene Ravvin in Witness; Photo provided by The Arlekin Players

An audio-only second act crafted by Viktor Semenov is the most impactful, with members of the cast reading correspondence from the museum archive.  Audience members are encouraged to wear high quality headphones in order to experience the pull of the Binaural audio, designed to create a sense of 3D sound.  Studies have shown that people believe what they see over what they hear.  Deprived of visuals we have no option but to focus on the words of the people involved.

Staged primarily in the hallway of the ship, Act III takes place in the present.  The conversation is dominated by Leah (Lauren Elias) who is incensed about the growing calls for Jews to assimilate.  As someone who can’t be bothered to distinguish between a woman of Puerto Rican decent, a Somali immigrant, a first generation Palestinian American, and the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House— the state in which all the characters reside — and who also discusses the current political backdrop while leaving out our historically significant Jewish Second Husband, she is a flawed spokesperson for her viewpoint.  A counterposition that the Oslo Accords were a lost opportunity is dispatched in a few sentences delivered by Joseph (Nathan Malin) without sufficient context to enlighten anyone who isn’t familiar with that 1993 event.  The most emotionally charged outlook is expressed by the Emcee who is trying to reconcile the view he has of himself as a true American with the ways in which he and his family are perceived by others.

An artful entry into the developing world of online theater, Witness hints at the future of the form.  It has important information to share, though the jarring shifts in tone of Nana Grinstein’s script result in a lack of cohesion.  It’s technically ambitious and unsurprisingly I encountered video glitches and broken links.  Those did not mar a generally involving experience.  What is truly disappointing is to be invited to join a conversation and find instead that one is attending a lecture, even if it is a well researched and reasoned one.  

Presented by Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab and Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre, performances are scheduled through next weekend, January 21-23. Though played out in real time, the web-based show can be accessed from anywhere with a good internet connection.  Tickets are $25.  Running time is approximately 90 minutes with an additional 30 minute talk-back.  Visit https://www.zerogravity.art for more details.