“People have been saying ‘theater is a dying art form’ since the Greeks. It’s not dying, it's just continually changing,” says actor Jeffrey Hayenga. Despite being known for his roles on and off-Broadway and on television in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” he’s drawn to a simpler kind of performance, and hopes the pandemic has changed the medium forever. “It had gotten bloated and overly expensive. Getting back to just the basics can be very thrilling.”
Hayenga plays Fiers in an experimental deconstruction of “The Cherry Orchard” from Needham’s Arlekin Players Theatre. Founder and director Igor Golyak’s vision was to combine film, live performance and gaming in his latest attempt to create a new theatrical form that could best serve a contemporary, global audience living through a pandemic. “chekhovOS /an experimental game/” takes risks in its simplicity and its ambition, fusing live and pre-recorded scenes filmed in front of green screens into a multiplatform experience using technology that most audience members encounter daily.
“It's as if you were strapped to him during a skydive. It's like you both are just jumping into the void,” Hayenga says of working with the director.
Golyak believes all theater is site specific because each performance space is a different environment with its own obstacles to which artists must respond. The virtual stage is no different. During a recent performance, as about to begin, his company was faced with one of the obstacles unique to the digital space: Zoom glitches.
“It was an important show, and it had so many technical problems that we've never had and didn’t anticipate,” says Golyak. It took half an hour and three Zoom links for the show to get started, but once it did, Darya Denisova, the show’s sole live performer (besides a fish), didn’t miss a beat. Denisova plays Natasha Prozorov from “Three Sisters” who, like the others, is trapped inside the Chekhov operating system doomed to repeat the fate the author wrote for her. Her role is to guide the audience as they attempt to free the characters from their never-ending loops of disappointment, loss and boredom.
“I didn't prepare her [for the technical difficulties] and I feel kind of awful about it. I had a vision of how it should be done, but nobody around me has ever done anything like this,” Golyak told WBUR after the performance. Despite the lack of preparation, she confidently addressed the glitches in character in real-time, engaging with the audience to foster a smooth user experience for the rest of the show.
“I can see the audience and talk to them,” Denisova said in the talkback. “It’s still live theater, and there’s still energy exchange that happens.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Denisova starred in Golyak’s first virtual production, “State vs. Natasha Banina.” The show was a global success and launched Arlekin from a suburban theater known mostly to Russian-speaking immigrants to a world-class innovation hub, attracting the attention of international festivals and artists like Mikhail Baryshnikov, who appears in “chekhovOS” as the playwright himself, reciting text from letters he wrote while finishing “The Cherry Orchard” as he was dying of tuberculosis.
Golyak chose to include the letters to demonstrate the Chekhovian worldview that dictates the rules of the operating system from which the characters try to escape, and how much that worldview has to teach audiences today.
“Chekhov made fun of the awful things that were happening and he made fun of the idea that art needed some mission statement,” says Golyak. “But in this pandemic, we are so stuck. You can have all the mission statements you want but when a sickness hits you, when life hits you, or you're losing your cherry orchard, there's nothing you can do.”
What Golyak did do in the face of closures is find a way for the show to go on. Technology has allowed him to bring the intimate, shared experience of theater into homes around the world. It’s led to collaborations he and his company never thought possible.
“The pandemic caused a fracturing of the arts hierarchy,” says co-producer Sara Stackhouse. “Who was going to make new things happen so that we don't just fall back into those silos? And it was this little immigrant company that made really innovative work for 10 years. They are the shoulders upon which all this stuff is happening.”
“chekhovOS” is a free ticketed show that’s billed as a work-in-progress. Golyak says he plans to bring a final version with an in-person component to New York next spring. Unlike the Chekhovian characters trapped in the operating system, Golyak allows life’s pressures, limitations and even moments of failure to propel him to new artistic frontiers.
Tickets for “chekhovOS /an experimental game/” can be reserved online at zerogravity.ART through June 24. ArtsEmerson will co-present on June 6 followed by a live talkback with cast members Anna Baryshnikov and Jeffrey Hayenga, and director Igor Golyak.