This is the best virtual theater I’ve seen all pandemic: chekhovOS/an experimental game/. Conceived and directed by Arlekin Players Theatre founder and artistic director Igor Golyak, this production melds live and pre-taped theater, video, film, and gaming technology into a hybrid that unlocks a new way of understanding the world of Chekhov’s plays, even as it satirizes the sometimes ostensibly bleak tone which the playwright calls “comedy.” I laughed at the premise from the get go: Chekhov’s characters are upset. They want an end to the misery perpetrated on them by the playwright. When actress Darya Denisova appears onscreen as Natasha our digital guide, she complains: “We were told these were comedies! But there is only tragedy! ” It’s a complaint I’ve heard as a critic many times about the grim outcomes in Chekhov’s “boring” plays where “nothing happens.” They can’t get to Moscow. They can’t save the cherry orchard. That seagull gets it every time. What’s so funny about that? Well, maybe plenty.
Unlike Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author, these characters are in search of a different author: us– “people of the future,” to program different outcomes. As the play begins, they are fed up with being forever doomed to repeat these sad stories and are begging for our help to play a video game and interact with the operating system behind Chekhov’s computer and his plays to change the endings so these put-upon characters can be happy for once!!! We the “players” at home vote at certain pivot points using our “smart” phones to affect the destiny of the “players” on our virtual stages. We the audience also appear onscreen subsumed into the action, and can also comment on the action in the chat space. Natasha– who from time to time gestures with a dead seagull in her hand– is our go-between with the operating system “Charlotta,” and Denisova certainly has the role of giddy game show host down as she exhorts us: “Guess what time it is! It’s interactivity time!”
The concept is brilliantly inspired: it uses a key trope in Chekhov’s thematic landscape as a tool to unlock the absurdity of existence– agency. (A 2014 Huntington Theatre Company production of The Seagull directed by Maria Aitken got the “comedy” just right.) Can we change the outcome of this game? Or any other? Is agency an illusion? What power do we have to be happy? Do we create our destiny–political? familial? emotional? physical? We immediately find ourselves in the thick of these existential questions, which become transparently relatable in this context. Certainly the pandemic is a lens through which we can instantly identify. And what of the societal reckonings that have erupted globally of late? Whose fortunes are rising and falling? Are white westerners Chekhov’s latter day aristocrats? It’s endless. If we widen the lens even more, we see ourselves in the game wondering if we ever really learn anything. Does anything ever really change?
The cast is remarkable. Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya is magnificent as the aristocrat whose beloved cherry orchard is on the chopping block; a thousand thoughts and feelings flicker across her elegant visage with each passing moment. Nael Nacer as Lopakhin grandson of the family’s loyal serfs delivers a potent suffusion of bald-faced hunger and generational resentment. Varya is delicately rendered by Anna Baryshnikov whose wide-eyed, sweet face glows with irrational longing for a man who never wants her. The entire cast couched in a simple but dramatic graphic design instantly conjures the absurd yet heartbreaking realities these characters inhabit with just enough context for us to get the gist and engage with them. You don’t have to be all that familiar with Chekhov or even have read his plays to understand the conundrums these characters and all of us are up against. Kids 12 and up will get it. Apparently gamers in the audience were transfixed.
Presiding over all is the ruefully amused Anton Chekhov played by Mikhail Baryshnikov the great dancer in a splendid performance, subtle, cool and tenderly bemused. He speaks from his letters about life and art, all the while resigned to what ails him: he’s dying. Of course. Isn’t everyone? That’s either incredibly tragic, or incredibly funny. Take your pick. Have a great day.
TICKETS ARE FREE! Do not miss chekhovOS/an experimental game/ Performances are followed by talkbacks. I’m leading one on JUNE 13! JOIN ME!