After the pandemic finally ends, it will become clearer which theater companies are committed to online streaming of their work and which view it as a stopgap in a time of crisis.
But when it comes to Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre and its restlessly innovative artistic director Igor Golyak, there’s no doubt that virtual productions will be central to the company’s identity. They already are.
Golyak’s appetite for roaming the digital frontier was evident a year ago with “chekhovOS /an experimental game/,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht — a duo who constituted quite a casting coup for the tiny company.
Presented on Zoom, it blended live performance, pre-recorded film segments, and video game technology to create a world in which Anton Chekhov’s characters in “The Cherry Orchard” were trapped within a computer operating system — presumably a stand-in for an indifferent universe — where they struggled to change their fates.
Now Golyak has enlisted Baryshnikov, Hecht, Chekhov, and “The Cherry Orchard” again in “The Orchard.” It’s even more technologically ambitious than “chekhovOS,” with a decidedly futuristic flavor, up to and including the active involvement of robots.
But in a news release, Golyak, a native of Ukraine, made clear that present-day reality was the driving force behind “The Orchard.”
“This is a story about the delicate relationships at the center of a family facing the end of the world as they know it,” Golyak said. “We are living through an unimaginable time of change and destruction with the war in Ukraine. As humans, we are perpetually losing our cherry orchards, losing our worlds. This play is about us today.”
“The Orchard” is being presented in two versions simultaneously: one online, and one in-person at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. Over the course of each performance, the two versions of “The Orchard,” live and virtual, eventually converge.
(Writer’s note: This was originally slated to be a review, but difficulties in connecting — the problem was on my end — caused me to miss part of the performance.)
Conceived and directed by Golyak, with an adaptation by him of “The Cherry Orchard” as translated by Carol Rocamora, “The Orchard” takes the online audience through a virtual property, rendered in three dimensions, that has been abandoned and is in foreclosure, mirroring the plot of “The Cherry Orchard.”
Inside that building is a “lost theater” where a performance of “The Cherry Orchard” is under way. The online audience can choose the camera angles from which they want to see the action. Dominating the stage is a robotic arm that looks somewhat like a gargantuan version of the Pixar lamp. Also making a frisky appearance is a robot dog akin to (but less lethal than) the one featured in a celebrated episode of “Black Mirror.”
Baryshnikov again plays Chekhov, as well as an octogenarian butler named Firs, and Hecht once again portrays the aristocratic, dreamily oblivious Madame Ranevskaya.
Her family estate is slated to be auctioned off, beloved cherry trees and all, to pay the family’s debts. Ranevskaya proves unwilling take the steps necessary to keep the estate from slipping from her hands, and it is bought by the very man who was urging her to take those steps: Lopahkin (Nael Nacer), a merchant whose father and grandfather had toiled on the land.
Baryshnikov, who founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center and serves as its artistic director, is slated to talk about “The Orchard” and his work at the arts center on “CBS Sunday Morning” on Sunday.
Live performances of “The Orchard” will take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and online through July 3. Tickets to online and in-person performances are at www.theorchardoffbroadway.com.