During its clumsy, glitch-ridden start Sunday night, “chekhovOS /an experimental game/” was shaping up as a cautionary Zoom-era tale about the perils of overreliance on digital gimmickry and interactive elements that strain to make the audience part of the show.
But by the end, with big assists from Mikhail Baryshnikov (as Anton Chekhov) and the incomparable Jessica Hecht, “chekhovOS” had reaffirmed the enduring power of that analog art known as acting — and of that playwright whose work and presence inspired this audacious marriage of live theater, pre-recorded film segments, and video game technology.
The spirit of another dramatist, Luigi Pirandello, and in particular his “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” is also palpable in “chekhovOS,” which is presented by the Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre. Conceived and directed by Arlekin founder Igor Golyak, its conceit is that Chekhov’s characters exist in perpetuity within a computer operating system, where they engage in a futile struggle to change the patterns of fate that define their lives. (It’s a notion of which Chekhov would likely have approved, however baffled he might have been by the software.)
That description doesn’t adequately convey the spell cast by “chekhovOS” — though it took awhile Sunday for that spell to materialize. There was a nearly half-hour delay because of “technical issues,” during which the chat messages from the audience flew across the screen, punctuated by this dry offering from Baryshnikov himself: “i think the characters have already escaped.”
Then we met our guides to the cube-like digital environment that represents Chekhov’s operating system (”a virtual manifestation of the value system Anton Chekhov brought to the world and characters he created”). One is a disembodied artificial intelligence voice called Charlotta, portrayed by Anna Bortnick. The other is Natasha Prozorov, a character from “Three Sisters,” played by Arlekin regular Darya Denisova with a deliberate air of wheedling, too-eager-to-please desperation as Natasha makes clear the audience’s role in the proceedings. (The Natasha segments were live and will be live at each performance; the other segments were pre-recorded.)
The production didn’t really get going, though, until the dreamlike enactment of scenes from “The Cherry Orchard,” featuring Hecht (”Breaking Bad,” “The Assembled Parties”) as Madame Ranevskaya, an aristocratic Russian landowner facing — or rather, not facing — the loss of her family estate.
It was remarkable how quickly and completely Hecht and her costars — Boston’s own Nael Nacer, Anna Baryshnikov (daughter of Mikhail), Jeffrey Hayenga, Mark Nelson, and Melanie Moore — pulled us into the deep emotional currents of “The Cherry Orchard,” despite the fragmentary approach. In the moment when Ranevskaya learned she has lost the estate, director Golyak steadily moved in for a close-up, remaining focused on Hecht’s extraordinarily expressive face as disbelief and denial yielded to anguish.
Those “Cherry Orchard” scenes were punctuated by straight-to-the-camera monologues by Baryshnikov as Chekhov, recording a video blog in which the playwright described his struggle to complete “The Cherry Orchard” while battling tuberculosis (its contents were drawn from Chekhov’s letters to his wife, actress Olga Knipper, and others). Baryshnikov’s facility with Chekhov was made apparent seven years ago, when he starred in “Man in a Case,” a multimedia piece adapted from a pair of Chekhov stories, at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre. In “chekhovOS,” Baryshnikov brings a quality of ineffable sadness to his portrayal, along with a gravitas befitting the man he is playing.
That man’s life ended far too soon, at 44. The achievement of “chekhovOS” ultimately rests not on any digital wizardry but on the force of its reminder that Chekhov’s capacity to move us remains undimmed by time or space — or Zoom, for that matter.
CHEKHOVOS /AN EXPERIMENTAL GAME/
Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” With new material by Tom Abernathy. Presented online by Arlekin Players Theatre. Through June 24. Tickets free at zerogravity.art, which has details on dates and performance times.