Review: Mikhail Baryshnikov Plays the Steve Jobs of Modern Drama in ChekhovOS /an experimental game/
Forget 1984. Arlekin Players Theatre is taking us back to 1894.
Do you ever feel like you're trapped in a machine, doomed to repeat the same functions like a bland accountant's version of MS Excel? Well, you're not alone. The unhappy denizens of ChekhovOS are right there with you. They have spent over a century in an operating system designed by the great Russian playwright to keep them miserable.
At least, that is the opinion of Natasha Prozorov (Darya Denisova), one of the sisters from The Three Sisters and our guide through ChekhovOS /an experimental game/, the latest production of Arlekin Players Theatre's Zero Gravity Lab, founded during the pandemic to merge theater, cinematography, and video games into an exciting new form. Under the visionary direction of Igor Golyak, the troupe largely succeeds — if not in forging an all-new namable form, at least in deploying several preexisting ones to create a memorable 75 minutes of theater.
During that time, Natasha hopes that we, the people of the future, armed with over a century of hindsight, will use our democratic power to elect a new outcome for Chekhov's characters, thereby freeing them from the system. We vote through our smartphones, first on which play we will reconsider. The Cherry Orchard won in a landslide at my performance (as I suspect it does at every performance).
Chekhov's final play, about a downwardly mobile aristocratic family and the middle-class businessman who suggests splitting their ancestral cherry orchard into parcels to sell off as dachas, is one of his best. But what if it ended differently? We are next asked to vote on whether the family should try to preserve the cherry orchard, or chop it down. Personally, I voted to take an axe to the whole thing. It's just going to be collectivized in a few decades anyway, so might as well liquidate the capital while you still can (easier to take it with you). Unfortunately, like the family in question, the theatergoing public is dominated by sentimental nostalgists — and they outvoted me.
Golyak and his wizard of a technical director Vladimir Gusev marshal an impressive amount of technology, blending live Zoom conferencing with prerecorded video and interactive elements. Besides a momentary sound glitch (during which Denisova remained unflappable), it was all flawlessly executed.
Still, it's a lot to take in, and I initially disliked the running commentary in the side chat, which made the play feel too much like a reality TV viewing party — The Real Housewives of Yalta. But then, following the disappointing second vote, a kindred spirit Zooming in from Moscow wrote, "Looks like Russian voting system," and that got a side conversation going about Chekhovian themes in contemporary politics. ChekhovOS draws a truly international audience and the ticket price ($0) makes it one of the most accessible professional theatrical productions on Earth.
This is especially laudable considering the level of talent onscreen. Jessica Hecht plays a delightfully dazed Ranevskaya, the lady of the orchard, while Mark Nelson is perfectly maudlin as her brother, Gaev. Nael Nacer delivers a Lopakhin (that's the middle-class real estate developer) who is powered by generations of resentment. And Jeffrey Hayenga is appropriately heartbreaking as Fiers, the elderly servant. Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Chekhov himself, with lines lifted directly from his letters. In his gentle performance, we get the sense of Chekhov as a man at the end of his life, simultaneously saddened yet amused by the world's cruel little ironies — even when he is the butt of the joke. He thought his plays were comedies, but his original director, Konstantin Stanislavski, disagreed, leaving us with the tragic interpretation that prevails today.
We've seen them for a hundred years in Stanislavski's walled garden, but Chekhov's plays would benefit from a more open-source approach, and it is thrilling to see companies like Arlekin Players Theatre do just that. Sure, it will likely be more buggy, but there is still so much to discover in these plays that the traditional approach cannot unearth. Or, as one clever commenter put it by quoting The Seagull, "New forms are what we need, and if there aren't any, then we're better off with nothing."