By JK Clarke . . . 

Let’s go back to the beginning and remind ourselves that Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is fundamentally about social change. Almost cataclysmic social change in some ways—and unknowingly prescient, as it premiered (in 1904) just a year before Russia’s first revolution. The breakdown of the feudal system and the upward mobility of former serfs is so startling, terrifying and absurd in some ways, that Chekhov wanted to frame it in terms of a comedy in this play (though productions seldom carry that thread). The very idea of this social change must have seemed absurd . . . impossible, even, to him and others living during this era. A new version of the play, simply called The Orchard, playing through July 3 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, is an augmented version, complete with robots and Russia stormtroopers ostensibly from the present war with Ukraine.

Mikhail Baryshnikov & Robot

One of the fundamental appeals of this Arlekin Players Theatre/(zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab production, directed by Ukranian Igor Golyak, is the casting of the legendary choreographer/ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (for whom the very theater is named) as the elderly servant Firs, a stand-in for Chekhov himself, and a benevolent symbol of the “ancien regime.” The pleasure of watching Baryshnikov glide across the stage is worth the price of admission alone. His Firs (beautifully costumed by Oana Botez) moves through the (blue!?) cherry tree petals, zigzagging and sweeping through as if on skates, yet retaining the affect of his character’s age. 

But the eye is quickly distracted by other elements on the stage: a rather large, high tech, interactive robot (seemingly on loan from MIT), which turns out to have not only abilities to serve coffee (and be scolded by Firs for not providing cream), but function as a light and camera, to boot. The robot, which would be at home on an assembly-line floor making auto parts, has its own personality and glides and pivots with the same grace as Firs—old and new serving as conduits to, and symbols of, the aristocracy—the automatic compliance and absolute reliability strangely mirrored between the two. What’s more, a second robot is one of those new, camera-mounted “dogs” which various municipal police forces have employed (to evaluate dangerous environments) recently, to the delight and horror of the citizenry. Who would have thought that Terminator’s best friend could ultimately have a benign, even entertaining use? This dog has character, does tricks and seems as welcome in the family as any pet. Its interactions with the clownish and sad figure of Charlotta, the governess (touchingly and hilariously played by Darya Denisova), are remarkable and entertaining to watch. (But, yes, robot dogs are more than kinda creepy.)

(L to R) Darya Denisova, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Mark Nelson

To perhaps both the benefit and detriment of the production, the technological wizardry doesn’t stop with robot servants and dogs, and technology ends up becoming the focus of this production. Not only is the production live-streamed simultaneously (a necessity during Covid, but is it really useful now?), but two transparent screens—which bear both live (or slightly delayed) video and/or text conversations from the script itself—frame the stage both up and downstage, from floor to ceiling. The combination of Anna Fedorova’s set, Yuki Nakase Link’s wintery blue lighting and Alex Basco Koch’s projection design is nothing less than breathtaking. But, it’s also distracting. Lost somewhere in the internet-age razzle dazzle, is Chekhov’s masterpiece. 

(L to R) Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Mcginty, Ilia Volok

This story of an aristocratic Russian family that is being forced to sell off its estate—which includes a lush, celebrated cherry orchard—because they’re basically bankrupt is both cautionary and resigned to inevitably. Had Ranyevskaya—played with a loving airy-ness by Jessica Hecht (Fiddler on the Roof)—not flitted off to Paris, buried in grief, instead of managing the property, could she have prevented the eventual sell-off? Who knows? Had everyone, especially Ranyevskaya, listened to Lopakhin (Nael Nacer) when he offered to work with them to save at least a portion of the estate, could they have avoided breaking up the “family,” sending everyone to unknown fates. Again, impossible query, because it’s a case of people of a certain class being unwilling to see the absolute necessity of change. Despite Chekhov’s insistence on the comic elements of the play, it really is, at heart, a tragedy. All of the family’s sadness and loss was, ultimately, avoidable. 

Nael Nacer- Photo: Pavel Antonov

This is a fine production that would have been just as enjoyable (or perhaps moreso) sans the excess of bells and whistles. Even without the high tech, it’s a complex lyrical play which especially shines in this lauded translation by noted Chekhov scholar Carol Rocamora (full disclosure, Rocamora is a regular contributor to Theater Pizzazz). When Trofimov, the “eternal student” speaks, he does so in American Sign Language, but his (and Rocamora’s) words are transcribed on the giant fore-screen. Just this touch is technologically fulfilling, augmenting an already delightful production. Nonetheless, it may be to our advantage that The Orchard is available online—there are undoubtedly countless details that make it worth watching again and again.

The Orchard. Through July 3 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (450 West 37th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). 

Photos: Maria Baranova (except where otherwise indicated)