Arlekin Players Theatre’s ‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ is shining example of live virtual performance

Natasha Banina
Arlekin Players Theatre/Courtesy

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Arlekin Players Theatre’s virtual production, “State vs. Natasha Banina,” is produced and presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival and opened June 14 for a limited run ending July 12. The play is performed live by lone actress Darya Denisova and is broadcast via Zoom by director and cameraman Igor Golyak, who captures her performance with cameras and digital effects. Though the dramatic elements of the performance are certainly formidable, the show truly shines in its leveraging of Zoom’s technical faculties to enhance the performance. 

“Natasha Banina” embraces the elements that distinguish virtual from staged performances. The production utilizes cameras, limited set design and Zoom’s polling and chat features to strengthen the play’s thematic impact and drive the plot forward, proving that virtual theater offers distinct advantages as a storytelling medium.

“State vs. Natasha Banina” is an adaptation of Yaroslava Pulinovich’s 2011 play “Natasha’s Dream,” which the Arlekin Players Theatre previously performed in 2017. The new adaptation tells the story of 16-year-old Natasha Banina (Denisova) who is on trial for manslaughter. Through the closed-circuit TV cameras in her jail cell, Natasha delivers her testimony on the circumstances leading up to the alleged event. When she is finished, the audience, serving as the “jury,” is asked to decide whether she is guilty or not by voting in a Zoom poll.

The verdict of Natasha’s case is not the first time that the production asks its audience to participate in a survey. Before the performance begins, a Zoom poll appears that asks the audience to reflect on their personal histories by answering questions such as: “When was the last time you cried?” or “Growing up, did you feel that people understood you?” These questions not only serve to create an immersive experience by mimicking a real jury selection process, but they also prime the audience members to actively consider their own relationships to the play’s themes of prejudice and misfortune.

Zoom’s technical limitations also provide strict parameters for the play’s set construction and staging: The entirety of Denisova’s performance takes place in a small, blank corner of the room. The size of the set puts Denisova in close proximity to the cameras for the entire length of the performance, which she uses to her advantage as she builds a tense relationship between Natasha and the audience.

The set is complemented by Vadim Khrapatchev’s intense score and Golyak’s clever staging of scene transitions, which give the live production some qualities of a television program or short film. Through its hybrid medium, the Arlekin Players Theatre has carved out a performance space that exists somewhere between staged theater and prerecorded programming, offering the benefits of both with few, if any, technical drawbacks.

Though the technical achievements of “Natasha Banina” are impressive on their own, Denisova makes them sing with her grounded, layered performance. From the beginning of the play, Denisova portrays Natasha as a young girl who is not very interested in engaging with the dire circumstances she faces, preferring instead to tease the audience or poke fun at her friends from school. 

At times, though, Denisova hints at the fear that shines through the cracks in Natasha’s bravado. As the play reaches its end and Natasha’s story becomes less and less believable, these cracks widen until eventually, all of the vitriol, desperation and terror that was bubbling underneath the surface explodes out of her in a chilling final display. Though Denisova’s performance is somewhat static throughout the first half of the play, the emotional heights she reaches at the end are well worth the wait.

The premise of “Natasha Banina” and the elements of its production smoothly complement the qualities inherent to virtual performance by seizing on the intimacy and participatory nature of Zoom theater. “State vs. Natasha Banina” is essential viewing for all virtual theater hopefuls, as it will inspire them to view Zoom as something to be embraced, not overcome.

“State vs. Natasha Banina” will run on Zoom until July 12. Tickets are free and can be reserved here.

Updated 7/3/2020: “State vs. Natasha Banina” is produced and presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival.

Contact Matthew DuMont at [email protected].