Game developer Will Brierly is no stranger to performance, having spent his college years as a mentalist who connected intimately with audiences. Nor is he a stranger to blending genres, having used an AI bot for routines at the Boston Comedy Festival and elsewhere, and creating video games for the Adult Swim’s website. So when Igor Golyak of Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Labs asked him to build a video game into a performance inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Brierly was intrigued.
“chekhovOS / an Experimental Game” (presented by ArtsEmerson June 6, with additional dates throughout the month hosted by other arts organizations) combines elements of gaming, video, and live theater into a hybrid performance experiment.
“I wasn’t super familiar with Chekhov or ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ ” says Brierly, “but after I read it, and Igor sent me the letters Chekhov was writing as he was finishing the play, I felt his sense of humor was in line with what I’ve done over the years. [Chekhov is] not interested in goofy jokes; he quietly says this is weird and messed up.”
The frame of “chekhovOS” has the characters from Chekhov’s plays trapped in his computer. Natasha (Darya Denisova), the only character who appears “live” in this Zoom performance, interacts with the audience to enlist assistance in freeing the characters from their prison. She asks the audience to select from a series of scenes from “The Cherry Orchard,” and these scenes are interspersed with Chekhov’s letters, read in Russian by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Baryshnikov’s letter readings and the six scenes from “The Cherry Orchard” were filmed in advance. Actress Jessica Hecht (“Friends,” “Breaking Bad”), who plays Ranevskaya, the woman who returns to her childhood home in “The Cherry Orchard,” says the actors performed in front of a green screen so that effects could be added later.
“Given all the COVID precautions around rehearsals, we found the intensity of the moments quickly,” Hecht says. “Chekhov comes at grief and humor sideways. These characters are behaving bizarrely in reaction to what’s going on, and considering the moment we were in, that felt familiar.”
Brierly says the scenes written 100 years ago reflect the same themes people are struggling with now: defining the parameters of their world; deciding what’s valuable and what they care about. But rather than place those conversations in a specific location, “chekhovOS” focuses on the emotions behind them.
“The computer program is the set, the venue for the production,” says Brierly. “Thinking about what a computer would look like 100 years ago but could also exist in a magical world led us to a conveyor system that loads video discs in and out, and a projector setup, which existed back then,” says Brierly. “I sculpted it all in [virtual reality].”
Brierly also incorporated a few interactive elements, including a countdown clock, a voting tally, and a spinning wheel, on which the Zoom faces of the audience appear; they are able to speak when Natasha calls on them.
“We’ve had a couple of performances,” Brierly says, “and every time, we make adjustments in the game to reflect the audience’s responses and reactions.”
At a recent screening, the audience was filled with gamers, who kept a lively chat going as the letters, scenes from the play, and interactive moments unfolded.
“Gamers are very opinionated,” says Brierly with a laugh. “But I loved how invested they became in the production, and they made some great suggestions. Attracting new audiences to this hybrid form of theater is part of Igor’s goal.”
The production is still in the experimental phase, says Brierly. Arlekin Players, based in Needham, will continue the “screenings” of “chekhovOS” with an eye toward a staged production next year.
“We will keep iterating,” he says. “This has been a tough, crazy year, and this kind of theater allows us to deal with emotions and share them together.”
Walking through Watertown history
New Repertory Theatre explores local history with the second of its Watertown Historical Moving Plays. “Listen to Sipu,” a guided, 45-minute walking tour that begins at the Commander’s Mansion (440 Talcott Ave.), explores the the Watertown Arsenal area. The tour guide (Grace Wagner) finds herself assisted by an Indigenous woman named Sipu (Maria Hendricks) who corrects misinformation about the area’s history with humor and patience.
“Listen to Sipu” was written by Morgan (Mwalim) J. Peters, a professor of theater at UMass Dartmouth and an award-winning playwright, vocalist, composer, and filmmaker, and it includes a soundscape by Geraldine Barney, a singer/songwriter and visual artist from northwest New Mexico. It runs June 5 to July 11.
Free Shakespeare takes shape
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has set the dates for this summer’s return to the Boston Common and completed its cast for “The Tempest.” In addition to John Douglas Thompson as Prospero, Boston Ballet star John Lam will play the role of Ariel, joining the previously announced cast of Siobhan Juanita Brown (Gonzala), Remo Airaldi (Antonio), Nora Eschenheimer (Miranda), John Kuntz (Trinculo), Nael Nacer (Caliban), Richard Noble (Alonso), Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Sebastian), Fred Sullivan (Stephano), and Michael Underhill (Ferdinand).
The Free Shakespeare on the Common production will run July 21 to Aug. 8.
Performances will be free, but due to because of expected capacity constraints, attendees will be asked to register ahead of time, beginning the week of June 21. In addition, the production will be shortened to allow for an intermission-less performance, and masks will be required of audience members over the age of 2. For more details, go to https://commshakes.org.