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Cast of ‘The Orchard’ at Emerson Paramount Center

In ‘The Orchard,’ Arlekin Players Theatre’s Igor Golyak continues to push the artistic envelope

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In ‘The Orchard,’ Arlekin Players Theatre’s Igor Golyak continues to push the artistic envelope

Cast of ‘The Orchard’ at Emerson Paramount Center

Anton Chekhov’s play, ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ opened at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17,
1904, under the direction of the actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski. During rehearsals, the
director rewrote Act Two, changing the play from Chekhov’s intended light and lively comedy
into a tragedy. Chekhov is said to have disliked the Stanislavski production so much that he
considered his play “ruined.”

One can’t help but wonder what the Russian playwright would make of ‘The Orchard,’ Igor
Golyak’s creatively incomparable and technologically unparalleled reimagining of this iconic
classic.

Golyak, whose family fled the Ukraine’s antisemitism in the 1990s, is a global leader in the
virtual theater movement and the founder and producing artistic director of Arlekin Players
Theatre & Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab in Needham. In a press release, he
highlighted the play’s personal and ongoing relevance as an analogy for so many current
societal ills.

“This is a story about the delicate relationships at the center of a family facing the end of the
world as they know it,” Golyak said. “We are living through an unimaginable time of change and
destruction with the war in Ukraine. As humans, we are perpetually losing our cherry orchards,
losing our worlds. This play is about us today.”

The live version (there is also a simultaneous livestream version with many bells and whistles
and interactive options) takes place on a surreal, stylized stage anchored by an enormous white
robot arm that is strangely animate and huggable, like the Pixar hopping desk lamp on steroids.
It also has the less endearing quality of a giant dental X-ray machine or unipedal CT scan.

The stage floor is covered in fluffy piles and the entire area is flooded in a blue light that feels
like a cross between a dreamy moonscape and a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Are these mounds
of fallen cherry blossoms or radioactive fallout? A Holo-Gauze screen (a highly reflective and
transparent projection net which supports 3D polarized projections) separates the audience
from the players. Large scale projections connect live and virtual audiences with feedback loops
that expand the otherworldly sense of chaos and charade.

This is not a production for literalists, purists or those unable or willing to let go of the notion of
control when it comes to live theater viewing. It also helps to have a cursory familiarity with
Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ to keep from getting totally disoriented when Golyak takes us
on a chaotic journey down the rabbit hole of his inventive artistry.

There’s so much happening onstage that looking for plot threads is as frustrating as it is
fruitless.

In a nutshell, the Chekhov version revolves around Madame Ranevskaya (played by the
ethereally luminous Jessica Hecht), an aristocratic Russian land-owner who returns to her
family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned
to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of
a former serf named Lopakhin (played by the prodigiously talented Nael Nacer). As they
struggle with the destruction of their world as they knew it, Ranevskaya’s family leaves their
home to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down.

Chekhov intended his comedic farce to dramatize the socioeconomic forces in Russia at the
turn of the 20th century, including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of serfdom in
the mid-19th century, and the decline of the power of the aristocracy.

Seeing a new riff on a Russian classic, however, is hardly what packed the house on opening
night.

The real reason many attended the performance was, of course, to see the extraordinary
Mikhail Baryshnikov in person performing as Firs, the 87-year-old former serf turned
manservant. The esteemed actor and ballet genius did not disappoint.

The opening moments of the black-clad Firs twirling dervish-like and being blown about by the
wind are worth the price of admission. Baryshnikov pirouettes across the stage with
breathtaking grace and ease. For the remainder of the play, he handily steals every scene he is
in.

The problem is that watching him is like trying to drive at night through the cloudy lens of a
cataract. While the Holo-Gauze screen adds immeasurably to the virtual production, it is an
annoying impediment for those watching live, like sitting in a seat marked “obstructed view.”

Nonetheless, ‘The Orchard’ is worth seeing if for no other reason than to follow the
contemporary take the extraordinary Golyak has on the ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ His production
reimagines both the classic and the ways in which the theater experience itself can be
reinvented.

It is also great fun. There is a mechanical dog (Robotics design is by Tom Sepe), the captivatingly
whimsical performance of Darya Denisova as Charlotta, and Anna Fedorova’s set enchantingly
lit by Yuki Nakase Link. Oana Botez’s costumes are added eye candy.

Having seen both the live and online versions, I must say that rather than being duplicative or
fungible, they are actually complementary visions of a single experience. Neither is complete
without the other and each sheds light on its counterpart.

In the online version, for example, viewers can choose the camera angles from which they want
to see the action and can exit the main stage to various other virtual rooms of the old house in
which the play occupies but one part. It’s as if the audience has been put in charge of its own
theatrical experience.

The live version has the opposite effect. With all the projected images and splicing in of the
zoom gallery shots of the online audience, we are not only aware of the play’s concomitant
virtual experience; we are captives in it.

When one of the actors say, “I have this strange feeling that I’ve just landed on the Moon,” the
audience nods in agreement.

Presented by Groundswell Theatricals and Arlekin Players and its Zero Gravity Virtual Theater
Lab, at Emerson Paramount Center, the Robert J Orchard Stage, 559 Washington St., Boston
through November 13. For tickets and information, visit arlekinplayers.com/the-
orchard/

This review was previously published at theatermirror/net

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