Jessica Hecht, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a Non-Binary Robot Bring Chekhov Squarely Into Present Day

Igor Golyak’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ includes a virtual as well as a live production and even touches upon the situation in Ukraine while mining the comedic and tragic aspects of the great playwright’s work.

Maria Baranova
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht in ‘The Orchard.’ Maria Baranova

Igor Golyak assembled a cast that includes the noted stage and screen actress Jessica Hecht and the great Mikhail Baryshnikov before unveiling his new adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Yet the most conspicuous presence onstage during the production at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which the Ukrainian-born Mr. Golyak also conceived and directed, isn’t famous — or human, for that matter.

For all but a moment of this one-hour, 45-minute live production — there’s a complementary virtual production as well — a 12-foot-tall robotic arm stands center stage, ironically providing old-school services such as pouring coffee and spinning records. The device also functions, essentially, as a member of the company; bending and stretching and generating light and noise, then becoming stock-still and silent, it suggests a character that alternately spies on, puzzles over, and empathizes with others.

The robot even has a name, Ronin, and identifies as non-binary, according to the executive producer of Mr. Golyak’s Arlekin Players Theatre, a company of actors from the former Soviet Union, Sara Stackhouse. It is — or they are — at once part of an established family and a towering, high-tech reminder that change is unavoidable; and, as citizens of Mr. Golyak’s native country have been learning anew, it can be harrowing.

A view of ‘The Orchard’ includes Ronin the robot. Maria Baranova

The family in this case, of course, is that of Lyubov Andreevna Ranevskaya, Chekhov’s aristocratic but despairing and debt-ridden landowner, who, after losing a young son and fleeing to Paris, has returned home, where change — specifically, the rise of the bourgeoisie class — now poses a threat to her hold on the estate she has both romanticized and taken for granted since childhood. 

The role of Ranevskaya is a good fit for Ms. Hecht, who retains an elegant beauty and can still project a deceptively girlish, flighty air — so that when her characters do hit the ground, the impact can be devastating. As in the original play, this matriarch refuses to heed the financial advice of the merchant Lopakhin, the scion of peasants and serfs who once served her family. Nael Nacer brings an increasingly disturbing mix of arrogance and glib compassion to the latter character, whose attraction to Ranevskaya is underlined here, becoming by turns amusing and creepy. 

Mr. Golyak mines the comedic and tragic aspects of Chekhov’s work throughout, in fact. Anna Fedorova’s scenic design suggests a dystopian but strangely beautiful future; azure-colored twigs and benches line a stage covered in aqua confetti, as if a blue frost has ravaged this orchard’s green bounty without quite destroying it. Digital projections of words and images supplement the dialogue and show the characters and action from various angles, highlighting different reactions and perspectives.

In the virtual version of “Orchard” — available for streaming separately, though tickets can also be purchased for both productions — audience members can tour a starker iteration of the set, and become players in the auction for Ranevskaya’s land. Mr. Baryshnikov appears as an ailing but witty Chekhov (who died of tuberculosis shortly after writing “Cherry Orchard”) and Ms. Hecht pops up as his mistress, who is tapped to play Ranevskaya; at one point, in character, she answers questions about the estate, submitted by viewers through a chat room.

Onstage, Mr. Baryshnikov is cast as Firs, the elderly servant who has been with Ranevskaya’s family for generations and remains utterly devoted to both his mistress and the fading social order she represents. Moving with deliberate stiffness, one of the greatest dancers of the past century nonetheless manages to express both humor and pathos in his stooped shuffling and stumbling — and as he speaks his lines, reminds us what a deft, nuanced actor he can be.

Other performances are similarly supple, from Mark Nelson’s wry, poignant take on Ranevskaya’s feckless brother, Gaev, to Elise Kibler’s gently heart-rending portrayal of Varya, her lovelorn adopted daughter. Deaf actor John McGinty powerfully captures both the idealism and the frustration harbored by the tutor and “eternal student” Trofimov, whose passions are reflected through sign language.

In an especially chilling passage, Ilia Volok appears as a “passerby,” a variation on one of Chekhov’s minor characters who materializes after a pair of sudden explosions, speaking only in Russian. As the others huddle by Ronin — robot and people all seemingly holding their breath — Mr. Golyak evokes recent and ongoing terrors that are no doubt more personal for him, and other Arlekin Players, than they will be for most audience members.  

Although “The Orchard” ends on an even more piercing note, Mr. Golyak and his collaborators never lose sight of the pure entertainment value of human folly. My hunch is that Chekhov would have approved.

The New York Sun

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