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On your screen but outside the box: Theater companies rise to a creative challenge

Jessica Hecht and Nael Nacer will appear in Arlekin Players Theatre's experimental Chekhov adaptation, "The Cherry Orchard: A New Media Workshop."
Jessica Hecht and Nael Nacer will appear in Arlekin Players Theatre's experimental Chekhov adaptation, "The Cherry Orchard: A New Media Workshop."Courtesy of Arlekin Players Theatre

Creating theater at a time when all the rules have changed has meant navigating some steep learning curves.

“We’re building the train tracks while the train is moving,” says Igor Golyak, whose Arlekin Players Theatre is partnering with the Baryshnikov Arts Center and Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation for “The Cherry Orchard: A New Media Workshop.” The production combines elements of film, theater, and gaming technology for a new conversation with Anton Chekhov and his final play (Feb. 26 at BACNYC.org, free but registration is required).

“It’s amazing to work with a new combination of collaborators,” says M. Bevin O’Gara, who is directing “The Pink Unicorn” for SpeakEasy Stage Company (March 5-18, www.speakeasystage.com, $30), an online one-person play that will be framed as a “webinar.” “But when we start, we don’t exactly know where we will end up.”

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“Everything in this pandemic has been a learning process,” says Jason Slavick, whose Liars & Believers is partnering with other companies to present “Beyond a Winter’s Day,” which includes live and prerecorded content (Feb. 28 at 4 p.m., as well as dates in March, www.liarsandbelievers.com, pay what you can).

“This is an experiment,” says Golyak, whose Needham company created Zero Gravity Virtual Performance Lab (zero-G) to explore the possibilities of new ways to make theater. “Everything we learn from this workshop will be refined, expanded, and improved in the full production we are planning for 2022.

“I’m not restaging ‘The Cherry Orchard,’” says Golyak, whose 2019 production of “The Seagull” moved effortlessly in and out of the text and back and forth in time and space. “I’m more interested in Chekhov’s unique view of the world.”

Chekhov’s final play, written while he was dying from tuberculosis, explores his characters’ helplessness in the face of loss.

“As a doctor, Chekhov knew his life was ending even though he wasn’t ready to die,” Golyak says. “I wanted to look at the letters and dreams to see how his thoughts fit with the way we are dealing with loss in this pandemic today.”

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Golyak structures the performance as an opportunity for audience interaction. They “awaken” Chekhov’s computer, where his dreams and letters are stored as video blogs that they can access. Scenes from “The Cherry Orchard” illuminate and illustrate his thoughts. While most of these scenes are prerecorded, Darya Denisova, who was so compelling in Arlekin’s first digital production, “State vs. Natasha Banina,” serves as the audience’s guide, encouraging interaction with the environment. Renowned dancer-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, founder and artistic director of the arts center that bears his name, plays Chekhov in the workshop production, which also includes Jessica Hecht (”Breaking Bad,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) as Ranevskaya, the wealthy landowner who turns a blind eye to the inevitable end of an era.

“In addition to learning elements of film directing, we are collaborating with web designers, programmers, game designers, virtual environment designers, as well as actors, a composer, and production staff,” Golyak says.

His goal is to be able to have a video running in the background while live action occurs in the foreground, much like the technology used in Disney+’s “The Mandalorian” TV series.

“Theater has always combined many different art forms,” says Golyak. “Now we are adding gaming technology to allow the audience to put themselves in the position of the character onstage. By joining all these forces, we can create a whole new art form.”

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Liars & Believers artistic director Slavick and his ensemble use the Zoom video platform to connect audiences with an ancient art form: telling stories around a fire.

“The way we avoid feeling stuck, discouraged, and isolated is by telling stories,” he says. “It’s an age-old way to connect, especially during the dark days of winter.”

Glen Moore as the Bear in Liars & Believers' "Beyond a Winter's Day."
Glen Moore as the Bear in Liars & Believers' "Beyond a Winter's Day."Courtesy of Liars & Believers

Slavick and his company decided to expand on their popular “A Story Beyond,” which featured a troupe of timeless storytellers who appear and tell folk-like tales. Company members wrote new stories and then worked together to incorporate masks, puppets, and music into the mix.

“For this virtual setting, the premise is that the storytellers have found themselves trapped in Zoom,” says Slavick. “They discover the way out together with the audience.”

Since his company enjoys experimenting, “Beyond a Winter’s Day” engages multiple senses to help make the experience feel more immediate for the audience.

“Food appears during the play, and so we send out a couple of very simple recipes audience members can prepare ahead so that they can smell the cinnamon in the cider, be comforted by warm soup, and enjoy the sweetness of a cake,” he says.

Stacy Fischer in SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Pink Unicorn."
Stacy Fischer in SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Pink Unicorn."Courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company

In SpeakEasy’s “The Pink Unicorn,” playwright Elise Forier Edie uses the semiautobiographical story of coming to terms with her daughter’s gender-queer identity to explore the importance of moving forward with love and acceptance. For director O’Gara, who became a parent nine months ago, the play felt personal.

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“The story is an honest exploration of one mom’s experience, the mistakes she makes and how she keeps trying to be better,” O’Gara says. “With Stacy Fischer, we have an actress who doesn’t have a dishonest bone in her body, which is essential for audiences to connect to this character.”

Still, O’Gara felt the play needed more than one voice dominating the conversation, to give the production more nuance and intimacy. She reached out to Shira Gitlin, who is the production’s associate director, to ensure there is another perspective.

“Trisha [the narrator/mom] can sometimes be very caustic,” says Gitlin. “My experience as nonbinary and my connection to this story provides another point of view into the different ways parents come to understand their children. We never meet Jo, Trisha’s child, but we need to make sure Stacy ‘hears’ their voice.”

The play’s setting is a Christian conference, and the audience has signed into a “webinar.” O’Gara says that frame created an opening to include a panel discussion following the performance, where audiences can hear more about the issues discussed in the play from the perspective of gender-diverse individuals.

“Theater can bring hope and light,” Slavick says. “We want to use the stories of our experiences to help us all reconnect and move forward.”

Fellowships honor Davenport

Beyond Classical Theatre hosts a fund-raiser Feb. 26 to raise money for the Johnny Lee Davenport Fellowships. These fellowships honor the legacy of the award-winning actor, who died in 2020, by giving actors of color, with a specific passion for classical theater, the opportunity to participate in monthlong training intensives at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, where Davenport was a longtime company member.

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The late Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in New Repertory Theatre's 2017 production of "Thurgood."
The late Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in New Repertory Theatre's 2017 production of "Thurgood."Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

The fund-raiser, a half-hour event starting at 5 p.m., will be hosted by Broadband’s “All Together Now” (broadbandcollab.com/all-together-now) and will feature a retrospective of Davenport’s career as well as personal tributes and performances by actors, directors, and writers.

Donations to the fellowship fund will provide two actors of color free tuition, room, and board for the monthlong training starting in January 2022. To donate, go to www.beyondclassicaltheatre.org/how-to-donate.