The thing about classics is that with each new production by a new generation, the most timeless works are able to transcend the era and location of their original setting to absorb and reflect the new zeitgeist. So it is with Anton Chekhov’s 1903 masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, one of the most translated and staged plays in history. A current web-based production by Igor Golyak and Arlekin’s Zero Gravity Lab takes this classic tale of feckless gentry, class struggle, and shifting social dynamics in expansive new directions.
Enabled by interactive technology for a poetic yet tech-forward aesthetic that grounds the work in the present, the piece is animated by a postmodern auto-referentiality and refractive self-awareness that interrogates the persistence of the play’s premise and message. This experimental version describes a vintage past trapped in a cheeky matrix, and self-aware performers pleading to be freed from the prison of entropy and despair to which Chekhov’s characters have inevitably succumbed for more than a century.
Golyak’s production fuses film, theater, and video game technology to create a new hybrid platform wherein viewers interact with the performers and perform tasks with the possible potential to affect the outcome of the play — namely, to prevent the disastrous sale of the eponymous orchard whose confectionary beauty is an important symbol within the family’s history, as well as a symbol of the downfall of their way of life.
While a talented cast of actors perform scenes shown at random to the audience from within a sort of hyperspace of minimal props and settings, the audience is prompted to “choose” whether to let the characters escape the fate as it was written. These pre-recorded scenes are interspersed with live, real-time and often quite surreal interactions with the host, as well as with beamed-in missives from the author himself — in the guise of Mikhail Baryshnikov reading Chekhov’s letters and diaries from around the time of the play’s creation.
By breaking apart the structure of the play, as well as breaking the fourth wall with relation to both the author and the audience, the mechanisms of creating social metaphors in the work and the infusion of personal context for its mood of dark humor is laid bare, as is the physical armature by which literature is enacted anew for a new generation. By forcing the audience into such an assertively present-day context, the interpretations of the play’s core messages as applied to the present moment in labor rights, class struggle, dodgy generational wealth, national history and the liberating and destructive power of industry are made all the more plain.
The flicker of dissonant timestreams in the aesthetic is a major part of the enjoyment of the production as well as part of its delivery of meaning. Further, the curious format of this innovative form of web-based theater, though it may have been inspired by the pandemic’s insistence on distance, claims inventions that are exciting and deserve to be developed further on their own merits — the return of in-person productions notwithstanding. But will the Ranevskaya family ever get to keep their precious orchard? Well, where there’s life, there’s supposed to be hope…
Only three shows remain: Sundays, June 13 & 20 and Thursday, June 24; 5pm Pacific. Tickets are free; Donations encouraged. Visit zerogravity.art for details and tickets.
Credits: Conceived & Directed by Igor Golyak; Produced by Igor Golyak & Sara Stackhouse; Starring Jessica Hecht, Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Bortnik, Darya Denisova, Jeffrey Hayenga, Melanie Moore, Nael Nacer & Mark Nelson; with Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov.