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In ‘The Orchard,’ arresting images are abundant but emotional pickings are slim

Jessica Hecht and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "The Orchard."Maria Baranova

Part of Chekhov’s enduring greatness is that he speaks to all ages and cultures, and always has something to tell us about ourselves.

Consider, for example, the layers of psychological depth that scenes from “Uncle Vanya” brought to “Drive My Car,” the brilliant, Oscar-winning film by Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.

Another aspect of Chekhov’s greatness, as with Shakespeare’s, is that his works can accommodate a wide variety of interpretive approaches.

“The Orchard," a multimedia adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard" conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, tests the limits of that elasticity, with mixed results.

First, let’s acknowledge that there’s not a more creative theater maker in the Boston area than Golyak, the restlessly innovative force behind the small but artistically potent Arlekin Players Theatre, based in Needham.


For “The Orchard,” now at the Emerson Paramount Center, Golyak has enlisted two big names: Jessica Hecht as Madame Ranevskaya, an aristocratic landowner unable to face the cold facts of reality, and Mikhail Baryshnikov as Firs, her octogenarian butler, his loyalty undimmed as he steadily slips into senility.

“The Orchard” fills the eye with images — including a giant robot arm and huge, real-time holographic projections of the actors — that are as arresting, even dazzling, as anything you’re likely to see on a Boston stage this season. On the level of sensory immersion, the production works splendidly.

A scene from "The Orchard."Maria Baranova

On the level of story and characterization and believable relationships, though, “The Orchard” is less than satisfying.

“The Cherry Orchard" was Chekhov’s final play before he died in 1904 of tuberculosis at age 44. It is a tale suffused with imminent loss: of a beloved home, including the titular orchard, and of illusions that are no longer tenable. But Golyak’s emphasis on visual wizardry dilutes the emotional impact Chekhov wants us to feel, and contributes to the production’s uncertainty of tone.


The usually exemplary Hecht overdoes the ethereality and flightiness of Ranevskaya. The way Ranevskaya wanders through the play in a kind of trance lends her an air of abstraction that diminishes the audience’s level of empathy for her and her losses (including the drowning of a young son years earlier, for whom she still mourns).

The great Baryshnikov, by contrast, hits just the right notes of quietly poignant befuddlement as Firs. There’s a brief moment in “The Orchard" when Baryshnikov twirls offstage with such grace it will bring a spasm of joy to anyone who remembers him as one of the greatest dancers of his, or any, generation.

As Lopakhin, a serf’s son who has risen to become a successful businessman, Boston theater stalwart Nael Nacer gives yet another fully committed performance. Nacer supplies much-needed dramatic tension to the proceedings, countering periods of slackness.

The cast also includes Juliet Brett as Anya, Ranevskaya’s 17-year-old biological daughter; Elise Kibler as Varya, her 24-year-old adopted daughter; Arlekin mainstay Darya Denisova as Charlotta, the family governess, a dab hand at magic tricks; Seth Gore as graduate student Trofimov (Gore, who is deaf, communicates in sign language); and Jeffrey Hayenga as Gaev, Ranevskaya’s brother.

But a firm sense of the connection between these characters never quite clicks into place. When one of the most expressive figures onstage is that robot arm with its headlight-like “eye” (resembling the flexible Pixar lamp), it’s a sign that the balance is off.


Of course, it could be that the balance is exactly as Golyak wants it.

The robot arm and a scuttling robot dog suggest the possibility that “The Orchard" is taking place in a post-apocalyptic future, where technology has triumphed over humanity once and for all.

Firs makes an ominous allusion to “the catastrophe." A Russian soldier (Gene Ravvin) shows up at one point, projecting a vague menace. The robot perpetually looks to and fro inside the nursery where the play unfolds on a floor of blue leaves, studying the humans and sometimes appearing to react to their behavior with puzzlement or withering disapproval.

Holographic cherry blossoms constantly drift across our field of vision. There’s the sense that civilization, too, is drifting away.

The central dilemma of “The Orchard” remains the same as in “The Cherry Orchard”: that Ranevskaya’s family estate is to be sold at auction to pay off the family’s debts. But that fate can be avoided if Ranevskaya heeds Lopahkin’s repeated, near-frantic advice to her — with a fervor intensified by the fact that he is in love with her — on how to generate income: that she agree to divide up the cherry orchard and the land into plots that can be leased for summer homes.

Will she meet or ignore her challenge? Will we meet or ignore ours, which are everywhere we look nowadays? If not, what will the world look like then? As Chekhov knew so well, and found numerous ways to warn us, catastrophe can come in many forms.



Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak. Based on “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov, as translated by Carol Rocamora. Production by Arlekin Players Theatre | (zero-G) Lab presented by Groundswell Theatricals, Cherry Orchard Festival, and ShowOne Productions. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Can be seen in-person or online through Nov. 13. Tickets for in-person performances $59-$125. Tickets for online performances $28. 617-824-8400, theorchardoffbroadway.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.