New York City’s Baryshnikov Arts Center appreciates the enduring appeal of classic theater, and embraces the contemporary power of technology to bridge its live and virtual experiences. Their current production is a reimagining of the Chekhov masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, but it is also a reimagining of the material parameters of the stage play format itself.

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Juliet Brett and John McGinty in The Orchard (Photo by Pavel Antonov)

During its full run, whenever there’s an in-person show at the New York theater, it is also broadcast live to audiences around the world — but it is so much more than just a live-stream. With a user-interface incorporating a real-estate auction premise and some gorgeous environmental rendering, elements of non-linear navigation, and most especially frequently offering a choice of different cameras’ points of view, from the wide and fixed to the on-stage hand-held and head-mounted. There are also additional moments of direct interaction for only the virtual audience, between the actors and the viewers, and among the viewers themselves.

Elements of the alternate video streams also show up back on the stage set as large-scale projections, completing a surreal, stylized set design and a delirious feedback loop that meshes with and amplifies the giddy, dark farce of metaphor and emotional chaos unfolding in the play. Oh, there’s also a pet robot dog, and an enormous tree-like robotic arm growing at center stage which becomes a physical and narrative touchstone as a stand-in for a treasured tree. The ground is covered in shifting drifts of fallen cherry blossoms, the whole bathed in eerie blue moonlight. “I have this strange feeling that I’ve just landed on the Moon,” says one actor, and they’re not wrong.

Darya Denisova, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Mark Nelson in The Orchard (Photo by Maria Baranova)

As in a previous iteration produced last year with Arlekin Theater, Chekhov himself appears as a commentator, played with charisma by Baryshnikov, as a Russian-speaking character who speaks outside of the play but thoroughly frames the modern production’s understanding of the work. Baryshnikov revisits a scaled-back version of this motif in the new version, but spends most of his time performing the role of a central character with a natural sense of nostalgia, joy and tragedy. The luminous Jessica Hecht reprises her leading role as well, with a beguiling mix of wisdom and daft denial that masks her character’s well of pain.

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Jessica Hecht in The Orchard (Photo by Maria Baranova)

The powerful resonance between the classic and the contemporary is down not only to the timeless core of its story, but also to the aggressive futurism and undeniable presence of the physical technology — almost a character unto itself — and its interweaving of real, virtual, projected, and imagined spaces into a singular whole. This arrangement offers different kinds of presence, each with their own attributes. Neither version — in person or online — contains the entirety of the experience. It’s not surprising to hear that many in New York chose to attend in person and also later revisit online.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Orchard (Photo by Maria Baranova)

What’s so fascinating about the production, beyond the very satisfying performances and teasing out of humor whenever possible — mostly at the expense of characters who are incapable of truly understanding one another despite their affection. Chekhov often said he considered The Cherry Orchard a comedy; you can sometimes hear the live studio audience laughing off camera — is the ease with which it is understood as a well-chosen analogy for so many current societal ills, and for the very real threat of intrusion posed by the same tech we use to feel connected.

Performances through July 3; $29; theorchardoffbroadway.com.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Orchard

LA Weekly