“They’re tools you’re using to illuminate … the tech is not at odds with the humanity, it’s there to underscore it or augment it or open it in the same way that lights and costumes and sounds are.”
Needham-based theater troupe the Arlekin Players will perform an exciting new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard live at the Emerson Paramount Center and online worldwide from Nov. 4 – 13. The show tells the story of “a family yearning for connection and struggling with the end of the world as they know it. Threatened with foreclosure and the loss of their beloved orchard, they face unstoppable, destructive forces that dismantle their lives like the breaking of a string.”
This iteration of the classic Russian play seeks to push the boundaries of traditional theater by incorporating technology in unique and unorthodox ways. Golyak and his troupe are bringing the play to Boston following a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run. The play’s cast includes Jessica Hecht (Friends, Breaking Bad, Fiddler on the Roof) as the family matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya as well as Soviet Latvian-born choreographer and Emmy Award winner Mikhail Baryshnikov as the family butler Firs.
In anticipation of the event, we spoke with creator/director Igor Golyak and co-Executive Producer Sara Stackhouse to discuss the upcoming performance.
The Orchard breaks with aesthetic tradition through its incorporation of unique set pieces such as a robot arm and robo-dog. While such pieces might have been absolutely inconceivable to Chekhov, Golyak and Stackhouse feel that these objects augment the characters’ humanity and help illustrate the play’s themes.
“One of the themes in the play has to do with something contemporary that’s taking over something that existed in the past, something modern that kind of takes over,” Golyak said.
At a meeting with contacts at tech company Dot Dot Dash, one of the company’s employees mentioned a robot arm that had been left in a warehouse after being used in a few shows. Golyak immediately felt that these pieces would provide “a very interesting contrast, a very interesting conflict of time expressed through this robot arm and these people from a different age,” and acquired them for the show.
Also unique is the show’s costuming and color scheme. While earlier adaptations had actors costumed in suits and elaborate dresses, their color palettes making use of pastels, earth tones, or black and white, Golyak’s characters are outfitted in slate gray costumes and exist in a melancholic, ethereal sky-blue world.
According to Golyak, “one of the most important themes of this play are the catastrophes that happen to human beings as they continue to survive and live through different things that are happening to them.” For Golyak and his set designers, the colors and costumes play a huge role in creating a “post-apocalyptic, post-catastrophe world.”
Another key component of the set design is the techno-cosmic light projections decorating the back of the stage. For Golyak, these projections proved helpful in illustrating what he calls the Chekhovian zoom-out: “I think that the second act in Chekhov’s major plays is kind of impossible to do, because there’s nothing happening. And the point of those acts is that nothing is happening and that people are kind of stuck. But even if something is happening, it’s not as important as this zooming-out. Chekhov being a doctor has to zoom out to look at people, he has to separate himself, because he can’t be emotionally involved. So, this is the Doctor Chekhovian view of people where they’re sitting around, nothing is happening, but at the same time, they’re being affected by things that happen to them.”
There are many challenges that come with directing a Chekhov play. Though The Cherry Orchard has been adapted countless times since its creation in 1903-4, it isn’t exactly an easy play to stage. According to Stackhouse, the key to overcoming most staging difficulties is to think deeply about what makes the play relevant to contemporary viewers.
“The way he [Golyak] approaches any project of a classic play, especially Chekhov, where so much happens off-stage is that there has to be a reason to do it now. It has to be urgently relevant right now,” Stackhouse said. “There are enough versions of The Cherry Orchard out there that if you want to see a traditional version you can. I think the question is, how does this play speak to us right now? In a moment post-COVID, post-George Floyd, during the War in Ukraine, the world is broken, and then all these broken things impact all of us, and we don’t have much choice over it, and there’s so much loss connected to all of it, and, yet, through all of it you’re trying to be with your family and save things.”
While some theater goers might be skeptical of the extent to which Golyak employs technology, Stackhouse assures that it doesn’t detract from the plays’ themes and emotional potency.
“The tech is only interesting in the way that it helps tell the story of the play and helps enhance what’s happening between the human beings,” Stackhouse said. “They’re tools you’re using to illuminate … the tech is not at odds with the humanity, it’s there to underscore it or augment it or open it in the same way that lights and costumes and sounds are.”
Golyak’s dramaturgical innovations are not limited to avant-garde set design; he said he’s always rethinking and reinventing the ways in which people perform and experience theater. One such reinvention is the virtual version of this performance; far from being a simple live stream of the in-person show, the virtual one provides viewers with a unique, personalized experience that is largely distinct from the in-person show.
“The virtual performance uses the same actors and the same play is happening, but the way it’s experienced online is completely different: it’s got a different arc to it, there’s ways you can interact as you watch it, you can bid on the auction, you can chat, you see effects, you see different camera angles, and you see each other,” Stackhouse said. “A lot of people have even gone to see both just to have the full hybrid experience.”
Stackhouse is especially excited by the variety of audiences the virtual iteration of The Orchard has been able to reach, many of whom might have never encountered Chekhov’s work in a more classic form. She says, “Through these virtual projects we’ve had really unusual audiences because we can be live in a bunch of countries and sectors at once. We had one show that we presented at a gaming conference, so it was all these gamers who didn’t know who Chekhov was, but to them it was like a Twitch stream so they’re talking back to the characters and they’re arguing with each other. And then we did the same production for a Russian children’s cancer charity and people were saying, Wait, we get to vote on what scenes we’re watching? This is like the elections! and suddenly we’re down a rabbit hole about Russian politics. … You get all these people in the room at the same time. You can’t do that [with traditional theater]. This is really unusual and special to have people coming in from all over the world and connecting with something intimately.”
Stackhouse sees the Arlekin Players as being on the cutting edge of American theater—and perhaps even worldwide—precisely because of Golyak’s willingness to experiment with genre and form. “Right now,” she says, “theater in America is really trying to figure itself out. COVID really did a job on theaters, but we’re also in this political moment, asking whose voices get to be heard, we’re also in this moment of economic challenges, there’s so much happening in the world that is so complex. I think theater is in a bit of a churn right now. So the thing I’m proud of is that this tiny, talented, inventive company from Boston has kind of been a leader in forging this new path, pushing this new way of doing theater.”
Whether in-person or virtual, The Orchard interrogates one of life’s most basic conundrums: how to keep moving in the wake of calamity. Golyak said for him, “the truth in this play is the feeling of empathy for these people, for us, empathy for everyone who is trying to survive and move on as things happen to us: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine. Even with the loss of agency we sometimes have, we try to endure and keep moving through the catastrophes that happen to us. These people have so much love for each other and are just trying to continue living and enduring together.”
According to Stackhouse, this feeling of empathy animates the very ethos of the Arlekin Players: “the company they made at Arlekin is all immigrants from the former Soviet Union. So, there’s an ongoing exploration of what home is, what culture is, what identity is, and how you navigate the world deciding what’s meaningful. How do you understand people who are other? … When Igor talks about empathy, I think that’s part of it: everybody in this play is just trying to figure out how to live, and I think that’s a constant question and a constant renewal with this company that we have as well as the actors in this play.”
The Orchard’s cast includes multiple immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union including award-winning performer and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Stackhouse expressed her gratitude toward Baryshnikov, saying, “When you’re somebody like Misha [Baryshnikov] there’s only so much of you to go around and only so many days in your life, and the fact that he chose to shine his light on this gifted young director and this project and to throw himself into it and be part of it with us it really speaks to his interest in experimentation, but also his interest in developing young talent and supporting artists. We have a lot of gratitude for him, and it means so much when someone of his talents and life and career decides to participate in that way.”
The Orchard at the Paramount Center, Nov. 4-13. Tickets at theorchardoffbroadway.com/