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ChekhovOS Finds Disconnection in the Virtual Chekhovian Gaming World

ChekhovOS Finds Disconnection in the Virtual Chekhovian Gaming World
 Jeffrey Hayenga, Anna Baryshnikov, Melanie Moore, Jessica Hecht, Mark Nelson, and Nael Nacer in chekhovOS.

Log on, all creatures, all creatures, and get ready for something completely different and unique. We are now, as told by our host, in the virtual operating system of ChekhofOS, an experimental game from Arlekin Players that plays and fuses theater, film, video game technology, and liver interactivity into something meant to be transformative. From the email messages sent out prior to signing in, this fascinating virtual environment sounds like it could be quite the adventure. It teases out a dynamic that plays with the creation, facilitating audience interaction, a defining feature that usually sends me running, in a way that could unleash and expand our ideas about all those Chekhovian characters that exist and are suspended in a literary universe. In the latest production from (zero-G), Arlekin’s Zero Gravity Virtual Theater Lab, founder and director Igor Golyak, who has been described by the company as a leading innovator of virtual theater, leads the viewers into a secret video landscape, where Chekhov’s characters beg us to “vote the right way,” with hopes that they will finally be released from the cycle they have been trapped in for decades. I can’t say the journey is entirely successful though, leaning more towards a frustratingly muddled and confusing concoction, rather than an enlightening or engaging one, to say the least.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in chekhovOS.

The game is played using all sorts of interactive formulations, some fun, while others start feeling like we all are trapped in another amateur Zoom meeting with microphone disfunction at the forefront. This isn’t how it should roll, but somewhere in this multi-media interactive theatrical experience, produced by Igor Golyak and Sara Stackhouse of Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, the effect trips itself up, trying its hardest to feel inspired, not only by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which I guess is a foregone conclusion, but also with Chekhov’s letters and dreams. The fracturing happens in between the white lines, when the clumsiness of the out-of-this-world structure stumbles and the letters and dream section flys strong, heady, and high, heightened by the magnificent Mikhail Baryshnikov (Baryshnikov Arts Center Founder and Artistic Director)making a special much-needed appearance as Anton Chekhov himself. Those wandering recordings, even when lost in their own meaning, add a weight and a fullness of flavor that doesn’t exist in the muddled “virtual operating system.” In that white computer generated spacecraft at the center of this abstract formulation, our host, Natasha Prozorov, portrayed by Darya Denisova (Arlekin’s The Stone), attempts to lead us through with grace and flavor, but it becomes pretty clear that the way forward has already been paved by hopelessness. Very Chekhovian, if you ask me, but only if the intellectual structure had been more wisely constructed. 

Jeffrey Hayenga, Anna Baryshnikov, Melanie Moore, Jessica Hecht, Mark Nelson, and Nael Nacer in chekhovOS.

Trapped and suffering” inside Chekhov’s worldview, his psyche, and this somewhat slick “operating system,” the playwright’s themes of unhappiness, boredom, despair, and humor are brought forth for examination against a backdrop of virtual cherry tree blossoms hanging in the air and scattered on the ground. The black and white imagery of these Cherry Orchard settings are both sensual and abstract, creating a drama in the alterations that ignites our imagination. They pull us in, giving us some hope, mainly because of the illustrious performances within, particularly of the always fascinating Jessica Hecht (LCT’s Admissions) as the iconic Ranevskaya; as well as Anna Baryshnikov(Apple TV+’s “Dickinson“) as Varya; Anna Bortnick (Moonbox’s Parade) as Charlotta, Jeffrey Hayenga(Broadway’s The Elephant Man) as Fiers; Melanie Moore(NYCC’s A Chorus Line) as Anya; Mark Nelson (Broadway’s Angels in America) as Gaev; and Nael Nacer(Underground Railway’s Constellations) as Lopakhin. Their creations bring a strong sensibility to the interpersonal dynamics, while sadly, also disconnecting us from further detailed examination. There is something in that vantage point that is compelling, but we keep getting pulled out by the gaming of the operating system.

Darya Denisova in chekhovOS

We are told that the characters are searching for and needing happiness alongside escape from their Chekhovian loop, with the question, “Will the characters be trapped once again in their beautiful, broken world as it devolves to game over?” begging to be answered and unpacked by all of us in this virtual construct. The concept intrigues, but somewhere in the mixing of theater, film and gaming, the effort to give us meaningful agency ends up feeling like the true illusion and deception inserted in the program. We are told that we must interact and vote for a better outcome, but the piece seems to have its conclusion sewn up before we even dial in. “I don’t understand..how you would make this choice?” we are asked in utter bewilderment, but the random dream selections at the core, the very meat of the experience, seems to be already predetermined, leading to a fracturing of any understanding and interactivity. The final few played-out scenes are deliciously tender and meaningful, thanks to that Cherry picked Orchard cast, but the overall orchestration fails to move or inspire, leaving me wondering naively, “I never thought you would be perfect,” but I did not expect this level of unhappiness.

Jessica Hecht and Nael Nacer in chekhovOS.

chekhovOS /an experimental game/ was developed and filmed, in part, at Baryshnikov Arts Center in January, 2021 with strict adherence to COVID health and safety protocols. Conceived and directed by Golyak, chekhovOS /an experimental game/ has virtual performance technical direction by Vladimir Gusev, game engine & interaction design by Will Brierly of Snowrunner Productions using his platform, “The Soft Layer”, narrative by Tom Abernathy, virtual set and environment design by Anna Fedorova, web development by Anatoly Krivonos, music composition by Jakov Jakoulov, and properties by Irina Vilenchik. The show runs on over 10 pieces of software and is powered by Aximmetry, the official software provided for Zero Gravity.

Tickets are free and must be reserved by visiting: www.zerogravity.art. Donations to Arlekin’s Resilience Fund or special charities are encouraged. The performance schedule is: Sunday, May 23 at 8:00pm EST, Thursday, May 27 1:00pm EST, Sunday, May 30 at 11:00am EST, Sunday, June 6 at 8:00pm EST, Sunday, June 13 at 8:00pm EST, Sunday, June 20 at 8:00pm EST, and Thursday, June 24 at 8:00pm EST.

Anna Baryshnikov, Jessica Hecht, Mark Nelson, Melanie Moore in chekhovOS.

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Film
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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