‘chekhovOS /an experimental game/’ Review: Life on a Merry-Go-Round

What if fictional characters were stuck in an infernal, hopeless time loop, a cross between “No Exit” and being on hold with Delta Air Lines? You can imagine that the siblings in “Three Sisters” would like the opportunity to stop talking about going to Moscow and finally — finally! — do it.

Such is the premise of the Arlekin Players Theater’s ingenious interactive show “chekhovOS/an experimental game/,” which takes place in a virtual realm where the Russian playwright’s characters rise up against their creator (portrayed by Mikhail Baryshnikov).

“We are tired of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s plays being performed, and we are tired of being perpetually unhappy in his world,” they tell the audience. “We beg of you … let us move on.”

The theatergoers, who are watching on Zoom, can vote to set Vanya and company free or can, for example, decide that this time around, the cherry orchard will not be cut down.

Or can they? More on this later. (A review about a meta hybrid of theater and gaming can’t be expected to be entirely linear.)

This conceit could fit a number of writers and texts (“Pick 1 for ‘to be,’ 2 for ‘not to be’”), but the Chekhoverse is a perfect setting to tackle issues of agency, or lack thereof, because the characters are so often in a rut, paralyzed by forces of their own making: They pine, hesitate and waffle, deprived of options by wistful regrets and elusive daydreams.

The Boston company Arlekin Players and the director Igor Golyak had already come up with one of the virtual era’s most acclaimed productions with last year’s “State vs. Natasha Banina,” but “chekhovOS” — part of the 2021 International Online Theater Festival — is a leap forward in storytelling and execution.

The previous show’s lead, Darya Denisova, returns as the only live actor, portraying Natasha, who in “Three Sisters” is married to the siblings’ brother. (The other live performer, introduced as “a fish called Olga,” does not contribute much and does not appear frustrated by having to swim aimlessly in a glass bowl.)

In segments written by Tom Abernathy, Natasha serves as host, introducing situations and dramatis personae, and interacting with the audience. Occasionally, Baryshnikov turns up (in a recording) to read some of Chekhov’s letters in subtitled Russian.

The audience votes on which play it wishes to see. At a recent show, it was “The Cherry Orchard,” presented in taped chunks and set in a stylish digital netherworld. There is a good chance you’ll end up seeing it, too (Natasha even jokes about it), just as the Chekhov characters are unable to deviate from their prescribed paths. This adds another layer to the idea of fiction as a deterministic software.

The show’s master stroke is that the scenes from the play are a lot better than they needed to be. Anna Baryshnikov (Mikhail’s daughter, and currently in the Apple TV+ series “Dickinson”) is a revelation as the young Varya, but the main draw is Jessica Hecht as the impoverished orchard owner, Ranevskaya. Hecht, who is simply unable to give a conventional performance in anything, often looks up in space; the character is distracted, dreamy, maybe not entirely there. Whether you are new to “The Cherry Orchard” or have seen it a half-dozen times, this take is intriguing, absorbing. It left me wanting more, preferably live.

And so, as in other devised, self-contained universes that keep you coming back for more, like a casino or an Apple device, Chekhov has the last word.

chekhovOS /an experimental game/
Through June 24; arlekinplayers.com

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