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.