theater review

In The Orchard, Baryshnikov Co-Stars With a Robotic Arm

From The Orchard, at BAC. Photo: Maria Baranova

The most spectacular effect in The Orchard, directed by Igor Golyak — and I am including the 12-foot metal robotic arm, the cyberdog, and the layers of projection and Zoom interactivity here — is an old man. In the play’s first moments, he blows onstage like a tumbleweed, whirling around in a butler’s billowing coat, his hair a silver dandelion puff. Once he finds his feet, he plays a faithful but decaying servant: The creaking little fellow tries to sweep but his broom breaks (he shrugs and sweeps with half a broom); later he interrupts the play’s Very Serious Moments by fussing with blankets and mishearing everything. No wonder it took some of my audience a while to grasp that this ancient, vague-eyed creature was being played by Mikhail Baryshnikov. In our minds, Baryshnikov’s a lion, the greatest dancer in three generations — but here he skillfully turns himself into the doddering lamb of second childhood, knees knocking together as if it’s his first day of life.

The Orchard is, for the most part, The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s sweet-bitter 1904 masterpiece. Baryshnikov’s character, Firs, is the old serf-turned-valet at a country estate tottering under its many debts, and he is also the estate embodied: Old, no longer productive, beloved by his sentimental masters, neglected by those who adore him. The aristocratic owners — the glamorous but unsteady Ranevskaya (Jessica Hecht) and her foolish brother Gaev (Mark Nelson) — are too distracted to hear their neighbor Lopakhin (Nael Nacer) and his practical suggestions about how to extract value from their land. How can they? Gaev is lost in memory, and Ranevskaya sees the ghost of her mother among the cherry trees and hears the voice of her little boy, drowned years ago in the nearby river. The pair surely also sense, thrumming well below their conscious hearing, the death rattle of their generation and the saber rattle of the coming revolution. Lopakhin shouts at them — just never loudly enough.

Anna Fedorova’s set feels like a playground after the apocalypse. The floor is covered in a thick layer of blue confetti — in one light it looks like the orchard’s springtime petalfall, in another like banks of ash. The huge metal arm center stage with its glowing “face” (a halo light) whirrs and rumbles to itself. At one point, it knocks a beach ball across the stage. You can see from its bulk that it could kill someone if it pivoted at the wrong moment, but it still acts like a child does with a toy. The robot dog, which scampers around to add jollity, is a toy. There are scrims both behind and in front of the stage, so various transparent images can appear anywhere, most frequently of Hecht, in a gauzy dress, spinning dreamily.

You have a choice about which version of The Orchard you will see: Built as a hybrid production, it allows you to view it as either an in-person theater show or as a digital piece. By the standards of even more radical adaptations (including The Cherry Orchard recently at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia), the in-person version at BAC stays relatively close to the original text. Audiences at home were doing all sorts of more complicated interaction — on video, we caught glimpses of them bidding in an auction, they were also having conversations we never saw — but the event in the theater itself could almost be called “conventional.” You would be surprised how accustomed you become to a giant robot arm, especially when it seems so eager to blend in. It stands up to its full height — look, I’m a cherry tree. It stoops to offer a tray of coffee — shh, I’m a servant.

During the shutdown, Golyak and his collaborators broadcast a streaming-only interactive project, chekhovOS/an experimental game/, which included a multitude of Zoom-prompts (questionnaires gave the virtual audience options about the course of the evening) and loads of metacommentary. Hecht and Baryshnikov appeared there too, but the tech trickery so smothered the performances, I wasn’t at all eager to see another work with that same affect. It did, though, leave me very keen to see Golyak’s work in the flesh, to see how it transmits through the actual air. I was delighted to learn he has a tremendous ability to create moments of intimacy in performances that include dancerly abstraction (Firs and his whirling entrance) and deliberate strangeness. Certainly this is the most affecting acting work I’ve ever seen from Baryshnikov, and I include his staggering performance in The Old Woman from just a few years ago.

If you don’t know the play and its plot, though, the action might prove a little confusing. For instance, an unsettling encounter in the country turns fully menacing in Golyak’s hands — the characters and the audience are stalked by a man in black body armor, visiting from a modern war. In the original, it’s an eerie interaction that hints at the upending of the class structure, so in this reinterpreted version Golyak, who is from Kiev, points to other national relationships that have recently been smashed apart. Cherry aficionados will also be deeply moved by choices made for Trofimov (John McGinty), the play’s student idealist, someone who sees a bright new future coming but has trouble making even the people closest to him understand what he means. McGinty is deaf, and only a few of the other characters will use sign language with him, which emphasizes Trofimov’s loneliness.

The production looks quite lovely in its perpetual twilight (everything onstage is pale blue, so it bends all light towards dimness), but I still wanted to walk around behind the stage, switching things off — first the projections, then the Zoom window that pops up, then the robot, then the dog. The show is best when it’s simplest: Using ASL, Hecht and McGinty have the most profound exchange in the play (signing and speaking helps her transcend some otherwise mannered tendencies), and Golyak shapes some striking grace notes around Trofimov’s chosen interpreter, the unlucky-in-love Varya (Elise Kibler). As she does and does not help him, translation and mistranslation become part of the warp and woof of this production. A sometimes too-heady production grows sharp and unbearably sad when the pair show us how we can talk and talk — and never be understood at all.

The Orchard is at BAC through July 3.

In The Orchard, Baryshnikov Co-Stars With a Robotic Arm