NEW YORK – The inaugural production of The Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) gets off to an auspicious start with a fine and frequently remarkable production of Chekhov's seldom-produced final masterpiece "The Cherry Orchard."
For The Bridge Project, director Sam Mendes, a British stager of protean ability who shuttles between directing theater and film, has created a theater company from scratch using talent from both sides of the Atlantic. He neatly fit them into his own and playwright Tom Stoppard's fresh and free version of the play. Under Mr. Mendes's staging, "The Cherry Orchard," which premiered in 1904 a few months before Chekhov's death, is a play that lives and breathes and laughs and cries and speaks about the vagaries of life that seem eternal.
At the center of the play is Madame Ranevskaya, the sweetly flutter-brained mistress of the great Russian estate, played by wonderful Irish/English actress Sinead Cusack in an artfully nuanced performance. She is aristocratic and handsome, dressed in a deluxe manner of the period by costumer Catherine Zuber, yet also giddy and gullible; and when it comes to dealing with a crisis: weak.
"The Cherry Orchard" brings her back to her ancestral home after six years in Paris. It is a precarious time because the estate and its magnificent cherry orchard are about to be sold to pay off its debts.
She has no money, having wasted away a fortune chasing after a worthless man since her husband died and her beloved young son drowned. Her silly brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) is of no help; he acts like a child, popping lemon drops, giving senseless speeches to a wooden cabinet and playing imaginary games of billiards. Her younger daughter Anya (Morven Christie) is not much help either, being only 17 and without resources. Varya, stoically played by the impressive actress Rebecca Hall, is Madame Ranevskayas adopted daughter and the estates stewardess, who longs to marry Lopakhin, a successful town merchant who seems game to the idea but cant get up the nerve to propose.
Lopakhin, acted with exceptionally brilliant skill by Simon Russell Beale, one of the most talented actors on the English-speaking stage today, is the only character in the play that has any sense of the family's financial doom. The son of a peasant, he grew up to become a millionaire businessman. He knows how to succeed, manage money and face practical problems: something Ranevskaya and her family can't do.
In this production, Mr. Mendes has allowed the character of Lopakhin to share the spotlight equally with Ranevskaya, giving his frantic efforts to save her and the family from financial disaster an added dose of dramatic tension as well as a touching sense of caring.
The play begins with Ranevskayas returning to the estate in a tumult of laughter and excitement, with servants young and old running about. Soon, the atmosphere shifts to one of tears and frustration. Lopakhin presents his idea to sell the estate, tear down the grand main house and divide the cherry orchard into small lots on which summer cottages could be built.
Ranevskaya tries to understand his solution then refuses the idea. She just can't face up to the fact that she is penniless, that the days of the great estates have ended; that the Russian world is facing a new era.
Like most works of genius, Chekhovs play is simple: the return of Ranevskaya; her feeble attempt to accept the facts, and then her departure. Between her arriving and leaving, we see a parade of Russian society of the time. Representing the old is the ancient manservant Firs (in a memorable acting turn by the veteran and only Canadian actor in the company, Richard Easton), who was born into the family as a serf and stayed on even after the serfs were freed in 1861. Then there is young Trofimov (Ethan Hawke), the familys tutor, who seems in tune with the times but whose head is in the clouds.
"The Cherry Orchard," one of the few great dramas written in the last century, still has a haunting contemporary relevance. The play is not done often –compared to, say, his "The Seagull," which I have seen no less than three times during the past year, including the superb London revival on Broadway last fall. "The Cherry Orchard" is a trickier assignment because it is a combination of broad comedy – Chekhov referred to it as a farce – mixed with genuine sentiment and pathos that requires an inspired director and a troupe of uncommonly gifted actors.
I think this maiden endeavor of The Bridge Project is a remarkable achievement that will get richer the more it plays.
The Bridge Project, which is being presented by BAM, London's Old Vic and Neal Street Productions, runs through March 8 at BAM. "The Winter's Tale" joins the schedule on Feb. 10. From Feb. 10 to March. 8, "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Winter's Tale" will play in repertory.
Information and tickets can be found at www.bam.org and (718) 636-4100.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers arts and entertainment.