Following a groundbreaking, interactive virtual production last year, Mikhail Baryshnikov triumphantly returns to his very own Hell’s Kitchen venue The Baryshnikov Arts Center (The BAC) this May in the live premiere of The Orchard — an immersive adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic drama, The Cherry Orchard.
An accomplished performer, 74-year-old Baryshnikov will have an extra acting challenge ahead of him — spanning a 43-year age gap by playing both the embodiment of playwright Chekhov (44 at the time of the show) and the 87-year old Firs, a character classically known as “an aging eccentric”. Perhaps he’ll draw on his experience playing Sex and the City’s Aleksandr Petrovsky.
The production marks legendary dancer, choreographer, actor, and multidisciplinary artist Baryshnikov’s return to the venue that bears his name, in the neighborhood where he’s frequently spotted by eagle-eyed locals. His last appearance at BAC was in 2016 in the US premiere of Brodsky / Baryshnikov, a one-man show based on the poems of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.
The BAC, built in 2005 on W37th Street between 9/10th Avenue, serves to amplify artworks from all disciplines, housing performances and visual art in its 20,000-square-foot complex of theaters, galleries, and studios. In addition to hosting numerous performances from visiting companies and artists-in-residence, the center collaborates with the city’s public schools to create free programming through its BAC After School initiative.
Chekhov’s final work has been adapted by Chekhov specialist and Russian Academy of Theatre Arts grad Igor Golyak and translated by Carol Rocamora. Written in 1904, it explores the crumbling of Russia’s aristocracy through the trials of one early 20th century bourgeois family wrestling to preserve their estate and still strikes a chord in these troubled times, said Golyak in a statement: “We are living through an unimaginable time of change and destruction with the war in Ukraine and with the pandemic. As humans, we are perpetually losing our cherry orchards, losing our worlds. This play is about us today.”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Baryshnikov: “In Chekhov’s play The Seagull Trigorin talks about feeling behind the times in relation to science and the modern world. He feels like a poor old peasant who arrives at the train station only to see his train pulling out in a puff of steam. He runs to catch it, but knows that no matter what he does, the train will move further and further into the distance. Russia is dangerously close to this poor peasant’s scenario, and I’m sure there are millions of Russians, particularly young people, who would rather be on that train.”
He added: “Right now there’s a Rubicon for Russia to cross. Either it will find a way to end this current conflict and live in an open global society, or it will be thrust backwards with no hope of recovery. For my part, I’ll quote his holiness, Pope Francis. ‘War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty!’ It’s clear to me to whom those words are directed. In simple terms, Russia is already back in Stalin’s time. The arts are collateral damage and it’s impossible to speculate how that will play out.”
The Orchard stars Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov and Firs. Broadway veteran Jessica Hecht plays Lyubov Ranevskaya and the production also features Anna Baryshnikov (Manchester by the Sea), Juliet Brett (Fosse/Verdon), Darya Denisova (State vs. Natasha Banina), John McGinty (Children of a Lesser God), Nael Nacer (chekhovOS), and Mark Nelson (Angels In America).
Golyak, who in addition to adapting will also direct this spring’s piece, previously produced an homage to The Cherry Orchard as an all-virtual theatrical experience last year featuring much of the same cast (including Baryshnikov and Hecht) in collaboration with the Arlekin Players Theatre Zero Gravity Virtual Performance Lab. The digital theatre experience combined film, theatre, and video game elements that melded Chekhov’s letters and dream journals with scenes from the play to create a hazy, dream-like atmosphere inside “Chekhov’s desktop”.
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Now he has conceived a hybrid production marrying the two — in addition to the live, interactive performance at BAC, a virtual experience will run concurrently with each performance. Partway through each performance, the two mediums as well as both virtual and in-person theatergoers will convene in a moment of artistic confluence beyond Chekhov’s wildest imagination.
Explained Golyak: “The post-pandemic theatre has to reexamine and re-imagine itself. Through this experiment we are finding out how humankind can find each other in the virtual while continuing to treasure the in-person encounter, which makes for a new kind of site-specific theatre. And I find myself in constant dialogue with The Cherry Orchard — during a time of loss and recovery, it helps us explore connection, transition, loss, and the human yearning for happiness.”
Golyak’s immersive concept is achieved in collaboration with an extensive production team, featuring scenic design by Anna Fedorova, costume design by Oana Botez, lighting design by Yuki Link, sound design by Tei Blow, robotics designed by Adam Paikowsky of dotdotdash.io, and holographic projections by Golyak himself. The virtual performance features scenic design by Anna Fedorova, as well as Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens, Athomas Goldberg of Lifelike & Believable Animation Design and Daniel Cormino, Yu-Jun Yeh, and Emily Cho of Unreal Designs, virtual sound design by Alexey Prosvirnin, and interactivity design by Sasha Huh.
The Orchard begins in-person and virtual performances on May 31, opening June 16 and running through July 3.