New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center values the enduring appeal of classical theater and embraces the contemporary power of technology to connect its live and virtual experiences. Their current production is a reimagining of Chekhov’s masterpiece The cherry orchardbut it is also a reimagining of the material parameters of the format of the play itself.
For its entire duration, whenever there’s an in-person show at the New York theater, it’s also livestreamed to audiences around the world — but it’s so much more than just a live stream. With a user interface incorporating a real estate auction premise and stunning environmental rendering, non-linear navigation elements, and most often offering a choice of different camera viewpoints, from wide and fixed to on-stage handheld and mounted on the head. There are also additional moments of direct interaction for the virtual audience alone, between actors and viewers, and between the viewers themselves.
Elements of the alternate video streams also reappear on stage as large-scale projections, completing a surreal, stylized set design and delirious feedback loop that integrates and amplifies the dizzyingly dark farce of metaphor and emotional chaos that takes place in the play. Oh, there’s also a pet robot dog and a massive tree-like robotic arm that grows center stage and becomes a physical and narrative touchstone in place of a treasured tree. The ground is covered in shifting drifts of fallen cherry blossoms, all bathed in an eerie blue moonlight. “I have a weird feeling that I just landed on the moon,” says one actor, and they’re not wrong.
As in a previous iteration produced last year with Arlekin Theatre, Chekhov himself appears as a commentator, played charismatically by Baryshnikov, as a Russian-speaking character who speaks outside the play but completely frames the understanding of the work through modern production. Baryshnikov revisits a reduced version of this motif in the new version, but spends most of his time playing the role of a central character with a natural sense of nostalgia, joy and tragedy. The luminous Jessica Hecht also reprises her starring role, with an alluring mix of wisdom and mindless denial that masks her character’s well of pain.
The powerful resonance between classic and contemporary stems not only from the timeless core of its story, but also from the aggressive futurism and unmistakable presence of physical technology – almost a character in its own right – and its intertwining of real, virtual, projected, and spaces imagined in a singular whole. This arrangement offers different types of presence, each with its own attributes. Neither version – in person or online – contains the entire experience. It’s no surprise to hear that many from New York opted to attend in person and come back online later.
What’s so fascinating about the production, beyond the highly satisfying performances and teasing for humor whenever possible – mostly at the expense of characters unable to truly relate to each other despite their affection. Chekhov often said that he considered The cherry orchard a comedy; you can sometimes hear the live studio audience laughing off-camera – that’s how easily it’s understood as a well-chosen analogy for so many of today’s societal ills, and for the very real threat of intrusion posed by the same technology that we use to feel connected.
Performances until July 3; $29; theorchardoffbroadway.com.