Jessica Hecht in The Orchard at the Baryshnikov Arts Center
Photo: Maria Baranova
A Review by Deirdre Donovan
Robots rule in The Orchard, the fascinating new adaptation of
Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard at the Baryshnikov Arts
Center (BAC). This new take on Chekhov’s masterpiece has the
quality of soulfulness, not to mention a superb performance by
Mikhail Baryshnikov as the old servant Firs.
Conceived, adapted, and directed by Ukrainian born theater artist Igor
Golyak, this production surely reveals this director to be a bold
risk-taker. After all, who else but Golyak would plunk down on
center stage, a 12-foot robotic arm (robotic design by Tom
Sepe)? Programmed to do domestic tasks like pour coffee and
rake leaves, it also cleverly enters into an act of card games, magic
tricks, and ventriloquism before play’s end.
And that’s not all! The robot serves as
photographer extraordinaire with its implanted camera and even whips
up mischief at times that bewilders characters. Case
in point: In the final scene, it lifts a bench
off the ground as if it were a mere feather. This stage
business is more than eye-catching. It signals that the old
world has been uprooted--and a very unsettling new one has arrived.
Surprises abound in this production. And, if one stays for
the duration of this almost two-hour show, comic relief arrives
in the form of an adorable cyberdog that scampers about the
stage. This new-age canine adds some refreshing levity to
the goings-on, and offers to the Russian characters on stage a brief
respite from woe.
Anna Fedorova’s monochromatic set, lit by Yuki Nakase, is a study in
blue. There’s a kind of generic detritus covering the
stage floor that gets shuffled to and fro during the
proceedings. And, beyond the aforementioned robotic
arm, there’s a toy rocking horse, a bookcase, a miniature doll house, and
eight benches strategically placed about the stage. And, as if
to underscore the play’s title, a semi-abstract picture on the back
wall visually conjures up the interlocking branches of cherry trees.
When it comes to elegance, Oana Botez rises to the occasion with a mixture
of period dress and contemporary couture.
R) Mark Nelson, Jessica Hecht, and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The
Orchard at the Baryshnikov Arts Center
Photo: Pavel Antonov
Other creatives who deserve kudos are Alex Basco Koch for his impressive
projection designs. His designs gave an
additional dimension and rich texture to the live stage
performance. These projected images offer the audience a
kind of cinematic experience, allowing us to see a close-up of the actor’s
faces in real time.
This hybrid technique was particularly powerful in the final act when the
character Ranevskaya had just learned that her estate had been sold
at the auction—and that it was the former serf Lopakhin who
had bought it. Although Ranevskaya’s back was to the audience
in this poignant scene, we simultaneously could see the heartbreak in
her face, courtesy of the robotic camera that projected her frontal image
on the scrim. Indeed, the robot truly served the
dramatic moment here, and then some.
Will newbies to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard be able to fathom
what’s going on in this truncated version of the
original? Well, it
depends. Although The Orchard hews closely to
Chekhov’s text, it jettisons some of the minor characters who
contribute a lot to the play’s atmosphere. That said, if
a theatergoer can key into Chekhov’s poetry and the idiosyncrasies of
his nine characters here, it’s quite possible to piece together the
story of this down-at-heels aristocratic family on the cusp of losing
their ancestral home and their beloved cherry orchard.
Jessica Hecht, as Ranevskaya, is well-cast as the aristocratic woman in
financial straits, impossibly attempting to reclaim her
girlishness. Elise Kibler, as Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter,
Varya, who yearns for but misses a marriage to Lopakhin, is deeply
moving. Mark Nelson makes a sympathetic portrait
out of Ranevskaya’s brother Gaev, and is at his best when
imaginatively calculating his next move at billiards. Juliett Brett
is suitably sweet as Anya, and Danya Denisova, as the governess
Charlotta, is rightly quirky as she finesses her parlor tricks and
John McGinty, as the eternal student Trofimov, puts his own signature on
the character by using sign language (McGinty lost his hearing as a
young child). It’s unclear whether Golyak’s casting of McGinty
in the part is to underscore Trofimov’s inability to communicate his
high-minded aspirations to others in the play. But no
question that McGinty delivers the dramatic goods here. Ilia Volok,
as Passerby, is spot-on as he rudely enters into the play’s world and
wakes up the dreamy aristocrats.
in The Orchard at the Baryshnikov Arts Center
Photo: Maria Baranova
Baryshnikov, as the octogenarian Firs, is excellent. Not only
do we get to glimpse his balletic grace in the opening scene when he
supposedly gets blown around the stage from a wind gust, but we can
savor his Russian accent that lends an authentic feel to every line
of Chekhovian dialogue he intones.
All things considered, The Orchard is an unforgettable
retooling of Chekhov’s great classic. True, purists will
complain that Golyak’s insertion of robots into the play is a blemish--and
that they should be banished altogether from the
stage. But didn’t Chekhov himself insist that his Cherry
Orchard was “not a drama but a comedy, in places almost a
farce”. . .? So why shouldn’t Golyak push the artistic envelope
and toss in some robots to shake out some tired clichés and
revivify the old story?
And what better time than now for Golyak to stage a new updated version
of The Cherry Orchard? With the outbreak of war
in Ukraine, he knows first-hand what it is to lose one’s home.
Please note: Chekhov aficionados can experience The
Orchard in two ways: Live and In-Person Onstage or Online
in an Interactive Live Digital Experience. Those choosing the
digital version will be sent a link to the performance on the day of
the performance. Each production stands alone. However,
there’s no question that each is meant to complement the other.
Through July 3.
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 W. 37th St., New York, $39-$59 (in-person
performance tickets), $29 (virtual performance tickets), $49-$99
(access to both versions).
For more information, phone 617-942-0022.
Running time: 1 hour; 50 minutes with no intermission.