Things looked dire for Arlekin Players Theatre in March, when the pandemic forced the Needham-based troupe to close a children’s show it was presenting.
Arlekin could ill afford to lose a penny in ticket revenue. Since being founded by Russian immigrants a decade ago, the company had lived on a shoestring, struggling to get by month to month, even as innovative productions like “The Stone” and “A Dead Man’s Diary” earned acclaim.
So founding artistic director Igor Golyak racked his brains: What could Arlekin produce that might work on the kind of online platform that theaters were now forced to rely on?
The answer Golyak came up with has landed with an impact beyond his wildest dreams.
In May, Arlekin premiered a live-streamed, interactive Zoom presentation of “State vs. Natasha Banina.” Adapted and directed by Golyak, it starred his partner, the gifted Darya Denisova, as a 16-year-old Russian orphan on trial for attempting to kill a classmate she saw as a romantic rival. With its shrewd marriage of live performance, film, video-game-style animation, and interstitial graphics, “State vs. Natasha Banina” was one of the most successful early forays into virtual theater.
After “State vs. Natasha Banina” was presented in June on the website of the New York-based Cherry Orchard Festival, it caught the attention of the nation’s most famous living Russian immigrant: Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was so impressed that he arranged to present “State vs. Natasha Banina” through the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Manhattan-based arts complex where he serves as artistic director. Meanwhile, theater companies in Philadelphia, London, Toronto, and Tel Aviv have also signed up to present virtual productions of “Natasha.”
Another celebrated figure who was taken by “State vs. Natasha Banina" was Broadway and TV actress Jessica Hecht. So taken, in fact, that Hecht is now collaborating with Golyak and members of the Arlekin company in the development of a future live production of “The Cherry Orchard,” with an adaptation written by Golyak and Hecht slated to portray Ranevskaya, the aristocratic but debt-ridden Russian landowner. “The Cherry Orchard” will be one of the projects developed at Arlekin’s just-announced online theater laboratory for the creation of new works, called Zero Gravity (zero-G) lab.
All in all, it’s been a head-spinning few months for the 41-year-old Golyak. “I would never have been able to work with these people if they hadn’t found me through ‘Natasha,’” he remarked. “It’s been just incredible.” In his view, Arlekin’s breakout success underscores the potential of theater presented online. “It’s such a leveler,” he said. “How could we have gotten the editor of the theater section of The New York Times to come to Needham?”
That may be true, but it’s also true that the alacrity and creativity with which Golyak responded to the challenging circumstances of the pandemic fit a lifelong pattern: When opportunity knocks, he tends to respond quickly.
An important part of Arlekin’s mission is to speak to the experiences and aspirations of the Russian immigrant community. Most of the three productions Arlekin puts on each year are staged in Russian as well as English. “As an immigrant, you exist in two realities,” said Golyak. “There’s the reality that’s around you, and then there’s the reality of where you come from, back home.”
It’s a complicated stew of feelings that Golyak knows firsthand. Born in Kiev, he lived there until he was 11, when growing anti-Semitism prompted his parents to immigrate to the Boston area, where relatives lived. During his freshman year at Brookline High School, he was cast as the lead in a play titled “The Blind Young Man.” He found that acting offered him a chance to simultaneously step outside himself and be fully himself. “I felt that I was seen,” explained Golyak. “I felt that I could be understood. That connection with the audience is still the driving force behind why Arlekin was created.”
After graduating high school in 1998, Golyak went to Russia to study acting at the Vakhtangov Theatre School and directing at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. Returning six years later to the United States with his then-wife and their baby girl, Golyak sold advertising door to door for the Yellow Book, then landed a job as a mortgage broker. Then, one day in 2009, a group of 10 Russian immigrant actors asked him to offer input on an evening of sketches they were putting together. From that meeting, Arlekin Players Theatre came into being.
The company’s recent success does not necessarily mean that Arlekin is out of the woods financially. First of all, few theaters ever are. Second, significant grants have so far proven elusive for Arlekin. With an annual operating budget of $220,000, Arlekin has just one full-time employee — Golyak — and a part-time theater manager.
But the online breakthrough of “State vs. Natasha Banina” has greatly elevated Arlekin’s profile and could pay dividends in terms of revenue, foundation funding, and future audience. Last month Arlekin enjoyed another coup, becoming the first theater in the United States to present an online reading of “Insulted. Belarus(sia),” a new drama by dissident Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik about the political tumult in his country.
Anne Gottlieb, long a standout performer on Boston stages, appeared in “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” and also starred last year as fading actress Irina Arkadina in Arlekin’s Golyak-directed production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Gottlieb was nervous about a pivotal scene in the play, when Arkadina pleads with her younger lover, the novelist Boris Trigorin, not to leave her. But as she and Golyak dug into the scene during multiple conversations, the director offered an interpretation of Arkadina’s motivations that made sense to her.
“He said ‘I think she should be at her most vulnerable, her most extremely terrified,’” recalled Gottlieb. “He said that losing this man means losing her youth, that is it not manipulation, it is truth.” And that is how Gottlieb played the scene, to shattering effect.
Broadly speaking, Golyak’s goal is what he calls the “emancipation of theater from literature.” That means approaching the classics not from a position of bent-knee reverence but rather with an eye toward experimentation and steeping the work in present-day immediacy.
“Yes, Chekhov’s play is in front of you, or Shakespeare’s play is in front of you, but you have to remember that you are in front of Chekhov, you are in front of Shakespeare,” said Golyak. “You are a collaborator with Chekhov, with Shakespeare. It’s up to you to put on something that touches people today. Chekhov is dead. Chekhov has done his work. It’s up to us to make it work, make it revolutionary today.”