Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York, New York


June 16 and 17, 2022 (Opening Night and Live Streamed)
The Orchard

Jerry Hochman

“The Cherry Orchard,” Anton Chekov’s last play, is a classic story of societal change in the guise of a comedy. Over the decades, it has been the object of seemingly unlimited stage play revivals, films, and other adaptations. Indeed, it is so familiar that people who’ve never seen it in one form or another think they know it. I’m one of them.

Now comes The Orchard, a new version Chekhov’s play in an off-Broadway production conceived, adapted, and directed by Igor Golyak, an award-winning Ukranian-born expatriate who now lives and works in New York, and produced by Arlekin Players Theatre (a company of immigrants) and (zero-G) Lab, both of which were founded by Golyak. I saw its opening night performance, and, as was suggested, followed it up with a live-streamed online performance the next night.

Either manner of presentation, live or live streamed, will display a state-of-the-art panorama. Far more important, however, is that this iteration of “The Cherry Orchard” provides a clear, accessible, and entertaining account of the play, updated in its language as well as its format for the digital age. Seeing it not only provides a primer on what can be accomplished in a combined live and digital presentation, but also on the universality of Chekhov’s message. It’s a triumph for Golyak, Executive Producer Sara Stackhouse, and all involved. If you’re at all interested in digital theater, theatrical performance art, or just superlative performances, don’t miss it. And hurry. The Orchard’s performance run is scheduled to conclude on July 3.

(l-r) Nael Nacer, Jessica Hecht, Mikhail Baryshnikov,
and Mark Nelson (with Nelson in projection)
in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

But, one might say, what does this have to do with dance? Admittedly, not much. Except to the extent that nearly all theatrical performances may be considered “choreographed,” there isn’t any in The Orchard — although there is a moment when all but one of the characters on stage dances a brief jig. But there is a connection — the dual role of the play’s 87 year old manservant, Firs, and of Chekhov himself, is portrayed by Mikhail Baryshnikov.

I’ll discuss the play as I saw it live, followed by a summary of the differences between it and the online platform. Some prior knowledge of the play – based on having seen it or thinking that you have – is assumed.

After “The Cherry Orchard” premiered at the Moscow Arts Theater in January, 2004 in a production directed by Konstantin Stanislavski, the man famous for character acting, his directorial achievements, and, even more so, by his system of actor training and performance (the “Stanislovski Method”).  Chekhov reportedly was furious that his play had been presented sorrowfully, as a tragedy; Chekhov insisted that it was a comedy. Clearly, it’s both.

(l-r) John McGinty, Juliet Brett, Mark Nelson, Nael Nacer,
Jessica Hecht, Elise Kibler, and Darya Denisova in “The Orchard”
Photo by Pavel Antonov

Golyak does a superb job of emphasizing both of the play’s currents concurrently, and it’s made even more accessible by the contemporary (and contemporary-sounding) translation by Carol Rocamora, to which Golyak added new material. The Orchard could be as easily venued in tony aristocratic (or nouveau riche) country estates outside of New York, Washington, D.C., or the Miami beaches – although with the latter they’d have to import snow and cherry trees – as in Moscow. Golyak also streamlines the characters by reducing their number to nine (nine plus two, as I’ll explain below) from Chekhov’s original thirteen – not counting characters who are referenced in the play but previously deceased. Consequently the play proceeds economically, with only its most significant characters, and condensed to its essence – somewhat as George Balanchine did with ballet. And its performance location, the Jerome Robbins Theater (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center), imbues it with Robbins’s sense of humanity by osmosis if nothing else – but there’s a lot “else.”

The two additional characters (the “plus two” I referred to) are a dog, Charlotta’s pet, with whom all the characters at one point or another interact; and a tree, an additional servant, an illumination source, and a family chronicler and memory repository rolled into one. Both are robots. And one of the many signature achievements of The Orchard is that these robots are accepted – after the initial surprise recedes – as real human (or canine) characters.

(l-r) Nael Nacer and Jessica Hecht in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

The dog (the robot looks and is shaped like a small dog – somewhat like a robot vacuum cleaner elongated and with legs and a head) performs tricks, obeys commands, acts with puppyish petulance, and is given sounds to accompany his movement that are sort of mechanical dog-like yelps.

The multifaceted character is even more fascinating, since he (it) doesn’t look like anything real or familiar – other than perhaps being physically similar to that contraption used by dentists that stands erect on its platform, but that can turn and bend as directed to fulfill multiple tasks like drilling, sanding, cleaning, and being a resting place for assorted tools. But he (sorry, it) physically dominates the stage and interacts at one point or another with all the human characters (from the play’s initial moments until its end), performs a variety of functions, and even reacts to events that occur on stage or to comments that one of the human characters might make. After awhile, he’s accepted by the audience (well, at least by me) as a member of the stage family. [To avoid constantly referring to it as a robot, hereafter I’ll call it/him … Anton.] It’s all quite remarkable.

Juliet Brett and John McGinty
(in projection and on stage) in “The Orchard”
Photo by Pavel Antonov

But wait. There’s more. I can’t claim to be knowledgeable about cutting-edge theatrical technology, but, at least based on what I’ve previously seen, it’s at least that if not more. There are the by now standard projections against the stage’s rear wall or scrim. But there are other projections that appear as if projected onto the downstage area as if on a scrim – but there’s no evidence that I could see of such a scrim. Logically there must have been one, but the images here seem to float in thin air. These images consist of any number of things: close-up apparently real-time videos of what’s occurring on stage (taken by  Anton using one of his “attachment” cameras ), as if enabling the audience to see the action through binoculars while at the same time viewing it as presented on stage – without binoculars; or freeze-frame photographic images (taken by that same camera); or views of the same action taking place live on stage but from different viewpoints: or projections of something occurring off-stage – like the bidders on the auction for the family estate and the status of their bids (more on this below).

The “wow” factor that these technologies engender could be bone-dry in terms of emotional response had they not been so thoroughly integrated with the live stage action. The play proceeds smoothly from beginning to end (there’s no intermission), and from Baryshnikov to Baryshnikov. That is, Baryshnikov’s character is the first to appear (and the first to interact with Anton), and the last to appear when the stage goes black (which is shortly after Anton bends to the stage floor as if dead – like the cut-down cherry trees). In between is a cornucopia of action that relates the tragi-comic nature of Chekhov’s story, and one that never gets bogged down in melancholy although melancholy over a disappearing lifestyle and the accession of another is the glue that holds it all together.

The cast is an amazing assembly of talent, most of whom are already well-known and award-winning actors. Perhaps because I didn’t have an image in my mind of the characters from a prior production, these actors accomplished what actors are supposed to accomplish – for nearly two hours, they were what I would have envisioned the characters to be.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Ranevskaya (Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya in the original) is the primary source of the barely concealed undertones of societal change that percolate throughout the play. And she is also the clearest representative of the failure of the then Russian aristocratic class to recognize, and to recognize the danger of, the unrest that prompted the failed first Russian uprising against the Tsar, which preceded Chekhov’s play, and ultimately the cataclysm of the Russian Revolution that followed it. She was distracted by other events, mostly of her past life. Jessica Hecht’s portrayal vividly captures the not-quite-focused detachment from reality that doomed them all.

Ranevskaya’s brother, Gaev (Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev), played by Mark Nelson, suffers from the same malady, but appears to have a stronger awareness of the consequences of doing nothing. It’s a complex role that doesn’t come across that way, and his low-key but more aware characterization captures the tragedy. As I recall, he interacts clearly with Anton, both as repository of memories and as a tree, and when the subject arose of the family’s selling their property, including the cherry orchard, to avoid insolvency, he sees the tragedy and the opportunity of it. And his seconds-long Tevye imitation (“If I Were A Rich Man,” without music or lyrics) at the thought of earning millions from the sale of the property was an almost throwaway classic moment.

Nael Nacer’s Lophakin (Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin), the merchant grandson of a serf who made millions and offers to buy the estate to help Ravenskaya and family settle their debt and cash out beyond that, is far more clearly a terribly complex and conflicted character. In his New York theatrical debut, Nacer’s Lophakin  comes across as annoyingly loud and brash (fitting the stereotypical depiction of a member of the upstart merchant class), but more interesting than that is his clearly conveyed relationship with the aristocracy. As much as his serf ancestors suffered under the rule of the aristocrats (serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861 – an act which many observers consider ultimately led to the Revolution – they envied, even loved, the aristocracy they served (represented in part by his obvious adoration of Ravenskaya) and that they ultimately overshadowed – at least until other forces superseded them.

(l-r, top) Mark Nelson, Juliet Brett, Mikhail Baryshnikov
(l-r, bottom) Nael Nacer, Elise Kibler, and John McGinty
in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Trofimov (Peter Trofimov), portrayed marvelously and passionately by John McGinty, represents those other forces. He’s the epitome of the single-minded student radical, a romantic character (“romantic” as in having interesting, attractively idealistic and self-righteous views of how to improve the lives of the Russian people), who is not fully understood by the Cherry Orchard aristocrats, who appear to regard him a curious but nice young man, of course failing to recognize that his ideas would forever change their country. [Golyak visualizes this failure to understand what Trofimov is saying in an unusual, and maybe too concrete, way – which I won’t reveal here. But it works brilliantly.] Trofimov is also loved by one of Ravenskaya’s daughters, Anya, apparently because he’s such a “romantic” idealistic person, and even though McGinty’s Trofimov repeatedly proclaims that he’s above all that. This contempt for bourgeois emotions seems only to make him appear more attractive to Anya.

Aside from the “Tevye” reference already mentioned, “Fiddler on the Roof” may have influenced (not inappropriately) Golyak in other ways. Trofimov’s character resembles Perchik, the student revolutionary, and Ravenskaya’s daughter Anya resembles Tevye’s second daughter Hodel in intelligence and spirit. Juliet Brett’s Anya is a free-spirited (but concerned) bundle of energy who is well-aware of what’s happening, and the seriousness of it, but doesn’t dwell on the past as her mother and other characters in that generation do. Her exuberance enlivens the stage, and overwhelms any melancholy that threatens to overwhelm the play.

Varya, Ravenskaya’s adopted second daughter, is older and more serious than Anya, and she manages the estate (and did so while her mother fled to Paris to avoid personal issues – as other aristocrats did), and is aware of the financial issues facing the family. Elise Kibler plays Varya as more subdued than Anya (though that wouldn’t take much) but equally intelligent, who may be involved with Lophakin, or may want to be, but doesn’t act on it.

(l-r) Darya Denisova, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett,
and Mark Nelson in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Charlotta (Charlotta Ivanovna), a governess and companion for Anya, is a strange, somewhat mystical character. As portrayed by Darya Denisova, who has been involved in Golyub productions previously, she’s the comic relief (as in the play) who does magic tricks, is the mechanical dog’s parent, and is The Orchard’s eccentric but somewhat fatalistic (whatever happens happens) character.

The scariest character in The Orchard is Elia Volok’s Passerby (A Stranger). The Passerby is part premonition, part nightmare, and the only character in the play who engenders fear and not a little hatred. In the play the Stranger is supposed to represent the new ideologies that threatened the aristocrats. Here, Passerby is that – and also something of a storm trooper, perhaps a visualized premonition of where Trofimov’s idealism might lead. The character, who appears for only a few minutes, shakes things up – intentionally (the family huddles around Anton throughout the Passerby’s strutting diatribes and implicit threats), and he’s a shadow that hangs over The Orchard thereafter. Chekhov here was extraordinarily prescient – but I suspect that Golyak had other things in mind when deciding how the Passerby should be played. As indicated, Golyak was born in Ukraine. Volok was as well. And as the Passerby’s frightening vitriol progressed, all that went through my mind was that the Passerby was a metaphor for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And then there’s Baryshnikov. In the live performance, his Firs provides somewhat of a summation of life as it was. To my understanding Firs was a liberated serf who remained on the family’s estate to serve them as he had done pre-emancipation. Firs believes that the emancipation of the serfs was a disaster, and is dedicated to maintaining things the way they “always” were. Baryshnikov portrays Firs as somewhat eccentric and senile, but to me his characterization is far more pixilated than senile. And his Firs tosses off gut-grabbing one-liners, delivered as muttered comments, with the same degree of flawless comic insouciance that he demonstrated in comic ballets such as Don Quixote, but also with a degree of fatalistic nonchalance that was both endearing and heart-wrenching. His was a remarkably nuanced performance, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw his live ballet performances (which I was fortunate enough to have done many, many times). [Baryshnikov is that lone actor on stage at the time who did not participate in that “impromptu” jig that I mentioned at the outset. Pity.]

Mikhail Baryshnikov in “The Orchard”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Baryshnikov also portrayed Chekhov himself – in the livestream only – who invites the viewer into the showing of his play (as if about to lead them down a rabbit hole). To the best of my recollection, Baryshnikov’s Chekhov also introduces the viewer to the auction – but not of the estate in the play. Online, the auctioned property is an ETF of the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Jerome Robbins Theater within it. The online viewer is also able to interact at this point, and can take a tour of the building and “inspect” the premises.

Additionally, the streamed online presentation provides more, and more varied, close-ups of the action that takes place concurrently with the live stage. In other words, just as the live audience could see different views and close-ups of the stage action in real time, the online viewer can see the same things, but far more of them. Beyond that, however, the livestream also includes additional dialogue, and pre-recorded entry into certain rooms of the family’s estate home.

That’s about as much as I got from the online format, and for me the live performance provided a far superior experience. But there were many transmission glitches during the livestream that I viewed, some of which were attributable to the transmission, and some to my reception (e.g., wifi limitations; buffering), so there may be more to the online format than I was able to see.

Be that as it may, The Orchard is a remarkable theatrical experience – and watching Baryshnikov execute The Orchard‘s verbal leaps and pirouettes is priceless.