The Call is Coming from Inside the Orchard

And now, a Write All Nite pastime:

Noting inherently unintentional — but maybe not coincidental?— connections between disparate productions.

This past season, not one but TWO famous Russian multi-hyphenates directed technologically-equipped revivals of The Cherry Orchard stateside: first came Dmitry Krymov’s at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, followed by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s The Orchard at (aptly) New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center.

But “technology-equipped” sells short their central similarity.

And I do mean central literally.

Both shows literally and figuratively revolve around a center-stage technological apparatus. In Krymov’s Cherry Orchard, it’s a train station split-flap display (raise your hand if you knew that term; RIP to Penn Station’s). In The Orchard, it’s a doubly life-sized robotic arm. Both productions position these machines as their primary storytelling engines.

Again: literally.

In mighty bouts of metatheatricality, the characters — or is it the actors? — must defer to the expressed wishes of the centrally located, constantly looming, dominant presence of the robots. Are they working to preserve Chekhov’s original vision, continually ensuring these radically wayward reinterpretations and reinterpreters return to the script? Or do they represent Chekhov himself, creating and correcting the story as we watch it unfold?

These conceptual questions intersect with the play’s questioning of its own characters’ agency. Are they solely responsible for their tragic fate? Or are they beholden to the programmed script of history, caught up in cyclical strands that spell inevitable doom for any and every era’s aristocracy?

Are their freely-chosen actions to blame for their eventual downfall? Or were their hands as tied and predetermined as their slavish fidelity to the dictatorial gizmos on stage? And how do all of these queries resonate in light of the globe-spanning tentacles of 21st century Russia’s authoritarian (author!) Internet Industrial Complex?

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