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Theatre in Review: The Orchard (Arlekin Players Theatre/Baryshnikov Arts Center)

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jessica Hecht. Photo: Maria Baranova

"Look, it's all the same, nothing has changed. White, all white!" So says Lyubov Andreevna Ranevskaya, heroine of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and, in this production, one's first thought is: The lady needs to have her head examined. Just about everything on Anna Fedorova's set is blue, beginning with the cherry blossoms that cover the floor and including the benches and toys scattered about. The one exception is the weird-looking mechanical arm at stage center. At first glance, it resembles a dental X-ray machine or perhaps something you might see at the optometrist; it functions as a kind of servant, serving up drinks, holding books, and sweeping the stage, all while making strange little Robby-the-Robot beeps.

You will recall that such a device is not indicated by Chekhov in the script. But The Orchard, a Chekhov-derived piece conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, transports the characters of The Cherry Orchard -- some of them, anyway -- to a kind of twenty-first century moonscape. There are changes aplenty: The script has been cut and rearranged. Several characters have been eliminated, including Dunyasha, the maid, and Yepikhodov, her would-be lover. Some speeches are delivered in sign language, others in French. Cherry Orchard first-timers are likely to be baffled; better to stay home and read Carol Rocamora's fine translation, which is used here.

In The Orchard, time is out of joint. The thinnest of scrims separates the audience from the stage; on it, one sees images ranging from falling blossoms to computer commands, close-ups of the cast, and a grid showing viewers watching at home (more about this in a minute). A robot dog prances across the stage. Explosions are heard, along with Russian pop tunes. In The Cherry Orchard, the characters find the past slipping through their fingers; in this version, they are marooned in a liminal landscape that is not really then and not quite now -- but, which, nevertheless, is seen through the filter of modern technology. Our discordant present is laid over the play's turn-of-the-last-century time frame in pentimento fashion.

Is this high-concept approach too clever by half? Possibly, yet at several major points Golyak and his actors get at the play's deep sadness, its sense of lives frittered away in idleness and vain pursuits. If it is one of the odder takes on this material you are likely to see, it is no less affecting.

Golyak has assembled a superb cast, beginning with the Ranevskaya of Jessica Hecht, who fends off impending catastrophe with a stream of scatterbrained conversation. ("I'm so glad you're still alive," she says, by way of making conversation with Firs, the doddering family retainer.) A woman whose only armor against the world is her charm -- her money vanished long ago -- her heartbreak is visible whether listening for the voice of her late son or perusing a letter from the lover she loathes but can't resist. Mark Nelson is equally poignant as her brother Gaev, his lifetime of idleness summed up in his sentimental appraisal of the house's furnishings. ("Yes, it's an inanimate object, of course, but nevertheless, it is still a bookcase. Yes...a work of art...O venerable bookcase!") Nael Nacer has the right mix of deference, panic, and fury as Lopakhin, the merchant whose warnings and offers of help go unheeded. In a bit of business that sums up these characters, Ranevskaya and Lopakhin, sitting on a bench, are forced to make conversation with Gaev sitting between them, blissfully unaware that he is blocking progress.

Also fine are Juliet Brett as Anya, Ranevskaya's starry-eyed daughter, in love with the perpetual student Trofimov. The latter is portrayed by the deaf actor John McGinty, who, signing, turns his character's aria about the planets, into a strikingly physicalized statement of despair. Darya Denisova has the right antic manner as Charlotta, the housekeeper with a knack for magic tricks, and Elise Kibler is an effectively lost soul as Varya, Ranevskaya's adopted daughter, who can never quite get Lopakhin to propose marriage. As Firs, misinterpreting the conversation around him and sleepily falling off a bench, the great Mikhail Baryshnikovhas the manner of a silent clown or perhaps an escapee from the Samuel Beckett universe.

Golyak stages many sequences with insight and invention. Ranevskaya's attempt at forcing the issue between Lopakhin and Varya is classically done, climaxing with her icy comment ("What are you doing") when he comes too close. The encounter with the character known variously as the Passer-By and the Tramp is terrifyingly invasive; dressed in military garb and loudly hectoring the others, he becomes an ugly, menacing interloper in an episode that evokes the current attack on Ukraine. (The sight of the company, huddled around the robot, recoiling from this intruder, calls up images of refugees displaced by the war.) The finale, in which the sound of chopping wood becomes something much more threatening, is startlingly contemporary. And when Ranevskaya asks Firs, "If the estate is sold, where you go?" His murmured response ("Wherever you tell me, that's where I'll go") is a melancholy echo of a disappearing way of life.

Fedorova's set, a portrait in desolation, is reshaped time and time again by the lighting of Yuki Nakase Link, which in turn works well with Alex Basco Koch's evocative imagery. (There are, however, latency issues with the projected closeups of the actors, causing their mouths and voices to be out of synch.) Tei Blow's sound design includes effects that are sometimes subtle and other times shocking. The eerie robots were designed by Tom Sepe. On the other hand, Oana Botez-Ban's costumes are a little weird: The women are lost under vast folds of material, and some of the men sport dueling silhouettes from different centuries; it's a high-concept flourish in a production that already has its share of such ideas.

You can also purchase a ticket to the production's digital edition, which comes with a virtual tour of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, with Baryshnikov himself playing Chekhov, and an auction in which those watching online can "bid" for the building. (The winner gets the right to purchase an NFT from the show.) Most of the time, the program consists of scenes from the production, but the transmission is fairly herky-jerky. Compared to the live version, it has little to offer.

But if you can catch it live, the members of this company execute many intriguing variations on one of the twentieth century's greatest plays, building a bridge between pre-revolutionary Russia and the present moment. If it isn't necessarily a Cherry Orchard for the ages, it is very much one for today. --David Barbour

(21 June 2022)

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