The verdict is in: Zoom can, in fact, be an effective new stage for theater.
The Boston-based Arlekin Players Theater’s digital production of “State vs. Natasha Banina” reimagines the utility of the medium beyond everyday office meetings and virtual happy hours, using graphics, animation and other interactive elements to create a captivating theatrical experience.
The immersive production, directed by Igor Golyak and starring Darya Denisova, is based on “Natasha’s Dream,” by the Russian playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich. Before it starts, an announcement sounds: “By joining us today, you have self-selected to be part of our trial.”
Eschewing the virtual equivalent of a theater’s typically silent, anonymous audience, this “live theater and art experiment” encourages viewers to introduce themselves to one another via the Zoom chat, and to take an interactive poll so they can be selected as jurors.
But, clearly, this is no typical trial: At the performance I watched, more than a hundred participants peered into their computers from their homes across the U.S. to hear the testimony of Natasha Banina (Denisova), a Russian teenage orphan being tried for manslaughter. Natasha nonchalantly describes her time in the orphanage, among girls who bully one another and supervisors who seem not to care. But Natasha wants more; she had a dream, she tells us, repeatedly, with desperation.
And here’s when things got bad, she tells us: When she met a journalist who took an interest in covering her hardships at the orphanage, she became infatuated with him, then obsessed, until she was driven to commit a crime of passion. At the end, the audience votes on her fate: guilty or not guilty?
While many productions have been trying to figure out how to use Zoom to mask the fact that we’re seeing theater at a remove, “State vs. Natasha Banina” (presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival) leans into that sense of disconnection. Natasha herself is detached from the world, and as she moves around the white walls of her empty cell, fidgeting and throwing middle fingers up to the camera, we become drawn into her head space.
She draws on the walls, and the sketches come to life thanks to Anton Iakhontov’s brilliantly executed animations: a cigarette smokes; a two-dimensional drawing of a TV conjures a functional one that plays a news segment; a faucet drips hearts that drop to the bottom of the screen.
We encounter her imagined lover, too, though never rendered as a three-dimensional human but rather piecemeal, as just a hovering pair of glasses or a drawing of legs and feet, or, most commonly, as an astronaut who strolls alongside her, as though her imagination has fully launched her into space.
This mutable virtual tableau is satisfyingly disconcerting. We’re intimately acquainted with Natasha; her mind is open for us to see, with all of its dreams and diversions, and her imagination is suffocating, as she swings wildly between declarations of affection and vicious aspersions.
Yet we are asked to judge her. The play’s conceit feeds from this tension, between empathy and dispassionate scrutiny. Zoom ironically makes the interaction even more personal; Natasha looks at the screen and calls out the names of audience members, pleading with them to see her side of the story.
This is the second interactive trial play I’ve seen recently (“Where We Stand” had its audience rule on its protagonist’s rise and fall from grace thanks to a magical interloper). Both are quiet calls for accountability that reach beyond the stage. We are asked for awareness, a vigilant wokeness in regards to a society’s disadvantaged, who are so often born into circumstances that make them figuratively dead on arrival.
This conceit could come across as gimmicky or melodramatic if it weren’t for Golyak’s crafty direction and video design, and especially Denisova’s charismatically off-kilter performance.
Her ever-grinning Natasha is abjectly alluring: unhinged and almost bestial, as she fidgets, paces and compulsively picks her nose. Natasha’s vehement insistence on her strength and indifference (“I don’t care” is a common refrain) reveals just the opposite, which makes moments of vulnerability, as when she curls up in a ball in the corner of the room and speaks of her mother, that much more riveting.
One can pick up on the play’s political notes: a timely criticism of a system that punishes people who have been marginalized by broken institutions, including orphanages. But the unequal social scaffolding built around Natasha is overshadowed by the grotesque peculiarities of the character herself, and Denisova’s mesmeric rendering. Though the story holds, it’s a missed opportunity, in this current moment of protest.
As we each sit in our separate rooms, considering our own inconvenient detentions, “State vs. Natasha Banina” delivers an alternative: not freedom, but a view into another’s imprisonment. The sight is unsettling — the Cheshire grin of a girl trapped in a room with only her fantasies.
“State vs. Natasha Banina” is streamable on June 21 and June 28 at the website of the Cherry Orchard Festival.