The first and last person to shuffle (in small Tim Conway-esque steps) across the stage of the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center is Mikhail Baryshnikov himself, in a rare acting appearance. He is Firs, the old faithful servant of the orchard (as the Chekhov play is known in this production), a zigzag trail through cherry blossoms dropped by an early frost.
It will be a winter of deep discontent for Firs and the aristocratic Gayevs he spoils – in particular the widow Lyubov Ranevskaya (Jessica Hecht) and her brother, Leonid Gayev (Mark Nelson), both consciously unaware of the social changes they are experiencing. estate will cost .
Anton Chekhov labeled this, his last play, a comedy and was understandably mortified when Konstantin Stanislavski premiered it at the Moscow Art Theater as a tragedy. The matter is still being discussed. Trevor Griffiths has said he finds it “objectively comical and subjectively painful”.
Weegt in Hecht: “I think it’s a comedy because there are a lot of human idiosyncrasies, which made for very funny moments. In terms of behavior it’s very funny, and anecdotally, it’s very funny, but I really don’t know if you can watch it without feeling the loss of family.”
Fiddler on the roof, which she revived on Broadway, “shows the same. People think, ‘Oh, they’re going to run away, but they’ll find each other again’ — and they never do.’ It is an aspect of the orchard that resonated with Baryshnikov: “Misha said he never saw people who left when he was 26. He never saw them again, and many of them were political people. They just disappeared. That’s hard to imagine as an American.”
Ukrainian-born Igor Golyak, who conceived, edited and directed this production, which runs from June 16 to July 3, also insists that these characters will not see each other again.
“The idea of being a family in the midst of this nightmare of being ripped out of your house is what he wanted to mine in this piece,” explains Hecht. ‘What kind of a family is it to experience something like that? Of course we look at it through the lens of each individual, but what is it like to say goodbye to your family? That’s what he’s looking for with all these images.”
And, of course, the play’s theme of an era drawing to a close is sharply reflected in what Golyak’s homeland is now going through with the Russian invasion. “It is, of course, extremely difficult for him to make a statement about the war. It makes us all feel powerless, but Igor feels deeply, deeply responsible for his community. He created a theater of refugees in Boston. That’s how he started. He sold advertisements in telephone directories and slowly raised enough money to start this shop for Russian and Ukrainian refugees.”
Hecht has been one of Chekhov’s Three sisters, but Ranevskaya is – with joy – a first. “I love Chekhov and I’ve always wanted to play this role, but it was only when Igor presented this idea to me that I really thought about it. He suggested developing The Cherry Orchard for a smaller cast and make it multimedia. That’s all he said.”
The set dominates a 12-foot robotic arm that sweeps floors, serves coffee and takes snapshots, projecting the moving images onto a stage-encompassing canvas. “The head of this creature has cameras and light and can make these projections,” Hecht explains. “You’re acting in a stage production, but you’re also trying to subtly adjust it so you don’t look too big.”
She adds: “What’s so interesting about Igor’s work is, yes, it’s technologically current, and yes, it boosts the multimedia thing, but the acting is delicate.
“You don’t want everyone to roar or see some kind of inflated human behavior. You want to see real people in the face of technology. Our essential nature should not be changed – hopefully only improved. Our own emotional lives should not be changed for these larger multimedia productions.”
Kuka, the company that produces the 12-foot robotic arm and other robots (it’s called Ronin), is a collaborator and partner on the show. They provided the manpower to make the robot moves for free as they try to find a place for them in the art world, be it theater, dance or film – a way to use this technology in performances.
The rest of the set – that which is not covered with cherry blossoms – is littered with trinkets in the nursery: a rocking horse that Leonid used to ride, and a top that Ranevskaya still spins to calm herself. It symbolizes a brother and sister who refuse to acknowledge that their privileged lives are coming to an end. His disinterest in a regular job and her extravagance have led to their heavily mortgaged mansion being auctioned off by the bank.
It is suggested at one point that they could save their estate if they sold their beloved cherry orchard and converted it into plots for summer homes. The idea scares Ranevskaya because of her aristocratic upbringing. “She imagines that someone is going to save her, even though in reality she knows that nothing is wrong,” Hecht suggests. “She is always saved at the last minute – literally by someone who gives her money – and she thinks someone will help her. It won’t happen this time.”
If Hecht and Nelson have a simpatico brother, it’s no coincidence. Not only have they worked together before (in Arthur Miller’s After the fall), they teach at HB Playwrights Studio.
And what does Hecht have to say for their faithful servant? “It’s a thrill to work with someone as artistic as Misha. People of that level of greatness that you only meet a few times in your career. I think it probably falls into two categories of people who have done so well in their lives. Unfortunately, some people believe that they are superhuman or take on the identity of the diva. Then there are people who are humbled by it, and Mischa is so humble, so collaborative, so interested in the work that I am literally blown away by him. I really can’t say enough good things about him.”