The suspension of in-person performances dealt a heavy blow to the theater industry, leaving companies the world over with the unenviable task of creating productions that are remote while still engaging the audience. Several weeks ago, I was treated to one such effort: the conceptually imaginative Chekhov.OS, the brainchild of director and co-producer Igor Golyak. The play, for the most part, successfully bridged the 200 miles between Queens and the Needham, Massachusetts studio of the Arlekin Players’ Theatre to deliver a captivating and thought-provoking performance.
The conceit of Chekhov.OS is that the characters who populate Anton Chekhov’s works have been preserved in the titular operating system, bidden (or perhaps condemned?) to relive their preordained fates indefinitely. The play is introduced as a guided tour of this operating system led by a woman introducing herself as Natasha Prozorov of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Simultaneously, a second “Natasha” attempts to contact the audience by way of the Zoom chat, warning of foul play. What follows is a murky trip through smoke and mirrors, a Chekhov grotesquerie in which the audience suspects deceit from all sides. Chekhov’s own preoccupations with human futility and ambiguity pervade every second of the play’s 90-minute runtime.
That being said, Mr. Golyak establishes a willingness to tinker with Chekhov’s work to suit his purposes. Case in point, The Cherry Orchard, staged as a play-within-a-play, is contorted and made to fit within the jagged bounds of the greater play. Anachronisms abound; Lopakhin, at one point, mimes taking a phone call with a bottle of champagne, to say nothing of the sleek business-casual attire worn by the players. The scenes take place in a timeless, shapeless void. All these details contribute to the otherworldly feel of the production.
Yet with all the disparate directions in which Chekhov’s body of work is pulled, one never doubts the esteem in which the company holds the source material. Mr. Baryshnikov, billed in promotional materials as the “special guest,” looks every bit as comfortable in an ensemble cast as he does in a corps de ballet. This, of course, should come as no surprise to those aware of his performance history. Although he made his name in dance, Mr. Baryshnikov is familiar not just with theatre – his general mastery thereof was recognized in 1989 with a Tony nomination for Leading Actor – but also with Chekhov. By his own admission, he “grew up reading Chekhov’s stories and plays,” something which, it is doubtless, informed his character study. Mr. Baryshnikov’s Chekhov is world-weary and multidimensional; he speaks in growls and sighs.
He is also complemented by a talented ensemble cast. They shuffle drearily through their parts, and even their moments of triumph are laced with defeat and angst. The standout performance, though, comes from Darya Denisova in the role of Natasha. She seamlessly navigates her hybrid role, simultaneously sticking to her script and soliciting conversation from the audience in real-time. As she unravels, Ms. Denisova’s character transcends fiction and occupies an ambiguous existential territory – just how Chekhov would have liked it.
I must say that the advertised “interactivity” of the production felt limited at times. Natasha did engage randomly selected members of the audience in conversation between scenes, and there was the occasional poll, but these asides seemed more incidental than integral. I would have liked to see the audience brought into the action of the play in a more organic fashion.But to harp on the play for falling just short of fully realizing its innovation is to lose sight of just how remarkable its innovation is. If the old saying that “skill hits a target no one else can hit, while genius hits a target no one else can see” is indeed true, then what Mr. Golyak and his company have pulled off with Chekhov.OS is a stroke of genius. In creative ambition, it is a marvel; in entertainment value, it is a wellspring; in theatrical execution, it is a triumph. I’ll be following the future exploits of the Arlekin Players’ Theatre with great interest.