History and futurism clash in the Off-Broadway debut of ‘The Orchard’ at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

An anachronistic reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the last work by the esteemed Russian playwright, written in 1903, is now making its Off-Broadway debut in a limited engagement at Baryshnikov Arts Center. Conceived, adapted, and directed by Igor Golyak – the Ukrainian-born founder and producing artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre & Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, which developed and produced it – The Orchard combines cutting-edge futuristic technology with the historic (tragi-)comedy, as translated by NYC-based educator and writer Carol Rocamora, with additional material created by Golyak, to underscore the theme of our ever-changing lives and world (not always for the better, as we’ve seen over the past few years with COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine).

Darya Denisova, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, and Mark Nelson. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The narrative follows the aristocratic Ranevskaya family and their staff, faced with the loss of their ancestral home and eponymous grounds – and, with it, the life they’ve always known – through the threat of foreclosure, the imminent auctioning off of the property, and the socio-political decline of their class in the period between the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs and the coming Russian Revolution of 1917. Though warned about the dire circumstances and offered a solution to the problem by subdividing the land and building summer cottages to rent, Madame Ranevskaya foolishly ignores the reality of the situation, clings to her memories of the past, and remains in a state of denial, spending money she no longer has and enjoying the pleasures of the cherry orchard (which will inevitably be cut down after the auction by the new owner).

An excellent cast embodies the divergent backgrounds, status, and perspectives of Chekhov’s classic characters, led by the outstanding Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya and Mikhail Baryshnikov as her 87-year-old manservant Firs Nikolaevich. Both turn in subtly humorous and empathetic performances – she as the lovely, entitled, and out-of-touch owner of the indebted estate, often unwittingly condescending and insulting, grieving the loss of her young son who died there, and unable to bear the thought of losing her beloved cherry trees, but continuing to laugh, to love, and to enjoy the beauty of nature; he as the now doddering and senile elder who also laughably reveres the past and his position with the family, handed down through the generations. While she plans to escape back to her ex-lover in Paris, where she previously took flight after the death of her husband and boy, he remains, forgotten in the empty house, as the others leave, the trees come down, and he will breathe his last breath. Though Chekhov called the play a comedy, the elements of tragedy are also well-captured in their stellar portrayals.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The lead actors are supported by a fine featured cast of seven, with Mark Nelson as Ranevskaya’s equally unaware and heedless brother Leonid; Juliet Brett and Elise Kibler as her daughters, the idealistic Anya and the hard-working Varya; John McGinty as Pyotir Trofimov, Anya’s love interest who believes he’s “above love” and represents the new utopian vision of the future; Nael Nacer as the businessman Lopakhin, the grandson of serfs on the Ranevskaya estate, who advises the family on how to salvage the property from foreclosure, then buys it at auction when they ignore his suggestions; the wonderful Darya Denisova as Anya’s governess Charlotta, who performs captivating magic tricks to entertain the others; and Ilia Volok as the strange passerby who infringes on the leisure pleasures of the idle aristocrats, as their world is about to crumble.

Though Chekhov’s story and moral are well-told by the actors, the current production incorporates a barrage of the latest post-modern elements of robotics (designed by Tom Sepe and a team of dotdotdash.io led by Adam Paikowsky, with an adorable quadruped robot provided by Graisin Robotics), holographs (conceived by Golyak), and live-feed and pre-recorded video projections (by Alex Basco Koch), along with an illusory scenic design (by Anna Fedorova), lighting (by Yuki Link), music (by Jakov Jakoulov), and sound (by Tei Blow), which contrast with the era of the narrative and the authentic period-style costumes (by Oana Botez).

Darya Denisova, Nael Nacer, Mark Nelson, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nael Nacer, Elise Kibler, and John McGinty. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

While the technology is masterfully executed, the concept is interesting, and the intent is to indicate the advancing of time, the never-ending changes of the world, and the uncertainty of the what the future holds, it tends to detract from the performances and to bombard the audience with indulgent and unnecessary futuristic contrivances. And the passages of dialogue in Russian and French, devised to underscore the lack of understanding and communication between the characters, only serve to confuse viewers who don’t speak the languages and were anxiously looking up at the downstage scrim for a translation at the performance I attended (whereas Trofimov’s segments of American Sign Language, directed by Seth Gore, were translated correctly in the projection and incorrectly by Anya, cleverly exposing her tendency to believe what she wanted, not what he was telling her).

In addition to the in-person production, The Orchard is being presented in a hybrid format, offering a simultaneous interactive livestream that intersects in real time with the live performance. The virtual experience (which I did not see) allows audiences to take a journey through the property, rendered online in 3-D, to explore the rooms of the estate and to discover such artifacts from the past as Chekhov’s letters, memories, and the play in progress at the theater, with which it ultimately connects. The creative team of the online experience includes virtual scenic design by Anna Fedorova, in partnership with Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens; Athomas Goldberg of Lifelike & Believable Animation Design; Unreal designers Daniel Cormino, Yu-Jun Yeh and Emily Cho; virtual sound design by Alexey Prosvirnin; and interactivity design by Sasha Huh.

If you’re a fan of merging innovative technology with traditional theater, this is a show that will hold appeal for you in its experimental approach. If you’re a purist and respect the classics for the timelessness and relatability of their themes, without the need for reworking or updating, you will most likely find this adaptation gimmicky and distracting.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.

The Orchard plays through Sunday, July 3, 2022, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $29 for the livestream, $39-125 for the in-person show, and a discounted bundle package for the two), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.

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