Are stage characters locked in a kind of Sartre’s Hell as in “No Exit?” Could they be Pirandello’s wanderers searching for a fresh existence as in “Six Characters in Search of an Author?” Such questions easily apply to the world of Anton Chekhov. Quite simply, Chekhov was Sartre and Pirandello’s theater precursor in exploring both existential angst and human displacement.
Now Needham’s Arlekin Players Theatre – returning to Chekhov after its very thoughtful revival of “The Seagull” – is inviting audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to interact with the great Russian playwright’s canon in an exuberant virtual effort called “chekhovOS /an experimental game/.”
The play – a concoction of theater, film, and video game – has the Russian playwright’s characters rebel against their creator, portrayed by the former Russian ballet star, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Conceived and directed by company artistic director Igor Golyak with narrative writing by Tom Abernathy, “chekhovOS” begins with an actual character namely Natasha from 1900’s “Three Sisters” announcing herself as “your lovely and talented host.”
Tellingly, the Arlekin Players production presents a sextet of precariously situated actors. During the 90-minute “game,” Natasha will call on viewers with smartphones to make such choices as from which play the insecure characters will come. Should the choice be “The Cherry Orchard,” audience members also will be deciding whether the title’s cherished possession be chopped down or not.
Arlekin Players standout Darya Denisova easily captures Natasha’s energy and spirit.
Another key part of “ChekhovOS” involves the playwright himself. Golyak has Chekhov – portrayed with world-weary wisdom and stunning sadness and yearning by Mikhail Baryshnikov – reading from his revealing letters to Chekhov’s wife Olga in Russian with subtitles. The gifted dancer-actor brings rich expression to Chekhov’s rhapsodizing about an almond tree in bloom and detailing his ongoing work to complete “The Cherry Orchard,” which debuted in 1904.
While Chekhov, a tuberculosis-stricken doctor, could prescribe no cure for his own ailment – from which he died that same year – he was able to insightfully diagnose his characters’ melancholy and deep dissatisfactions with life and despair about their respective futures in his pioneering plays.
Golyak artfully alternates between the playwright’s reflections and scenes from his plays. The result is that the excerpts from the letters and images of Baryshnikov’s Chekhov add perspective to the production’s exploration of his notions of comedy and the fortunes of his characters. Director of photography Guillermo Cameo has enriched the alternation and exploration with sharp visuals.
Most of all, the cast makes the characters in question seem to come to life with all of their reminiscences and resentments fully expressed. Jessica Hecht has all of Ranevskaya’s alternating grandeur and vulnerability. Hecht is particularly riveting as the returning orchard owner engages in heated exchanges with wealthy merchant Lopakhin – played with strong insinuation by Nael Nacer. Nacer brings eye-catching intensity to his angry memories of not being allowed in the kitchen of his serf grandfather’s employer and his sense of triumph in actually buying the property.
Mark Nelson captures the optimism and fondness for nostalgia of Ranevskaya’s unassuming brother Gaev, particularly in his fascination with the family’s heirloom bookcase. Baryshnikov’s daughter, Anna, displays Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya’s remarkable strength of character, while Melanie Moore as Anya finds all of her sweetness as her sister. Jeffrey Hayenga is touchingly fragile and lonely as longtime family manservant Fiers.
Chekhov described his plays as comedies, while his Russian theater collaborator, Konstantin Stanislavski, called them tragedies. No matter where the audience stands, Golyak and company provide entertainingly, compelling evidence of both designations. Purists may scoff at the interactivity of Arlekin’s production, but “chekhovOS /an experimental game/“ has the kind of wit and inner life that Chekhov would surely embrace.
The production will air on Zoom at 8 p.m. on June 20 and 24. There is no cost but donations are welcome. For the link, go to arlekinplayers.com.