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Glenda Frank

Loss and Departures

"The Cherry Orchard"
by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Sam Mendes for The Bridge Project
Produced by BAM, The Old Vic and Neal St. Productions at BAM Harvey Theater.
651 Fulton St. Brooklyn, NY.
Jan. 2 - March 8, 2009.
Evening shows begin at 7:30, Matinees at 2 and 3 PM.
Tickets Box Office 718-636-4100 or online ticketing is available on www.BAM.org. Seats: $90, $60, $30
by Glenda Frank

Sinéad Cusack, who plays Mme. Ranevskaya in the current BAM production of Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," is resplendent. It is easy to forgive her everything -- her persistent infatuation with the French lover who betrayed and robbed her, her unwillingness to save the estate by sacrificing the cherry orchard, even her profligacy with her scant resources. By the time she dons the red ball gown and takes her place center stage in the midst of the evening revelers or turns Lopakhin’s head so roundly that he almost blurts out an inappropriate proposal to her and not her adopted daughter, we know her good but foolish spirit and our hearts break for her. A little.

"The Cherry Orchard" must bustle with life, and director Sam Mendes’s design team ( Anthony Ward, set; Paul Pyant, lighting; Catherine Zuber, costumes) is masterful at setting the mood and telegraphing the arrival of Mme. Ranevskaya, her brother and daughter, and their servants. The stout Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale), a former serf who is slowly becoming a real estate magnate, waits in the nursery, seated in one of the tiny chairs while a housemaid (Charlotte Parry) polishes the silver and chats nervously. We hear a train whistle, the dogs bark, and feel the chill emptiness of the house. A clerk (Tobias Segal) enters and trips over his own feet; his nickname, he tells us, is Catastrophe Corner. Firs (Richard Easton), the aging butler who refers to the freeing of the serfs as "the disaster," bustles around. The servant begins to shiver, Lopakhin dabs on the cologne, and the stage fills with luggage. We too anticipate the arrival.

This emphasis on the smallness of the nursery furniture is clever. The estate is Mme. Ranevskaya and her brother’s childhood home; she even thinks she glimpses her deceased mother walking through the cherry trees. Anya, her daughter, grew up there, and we share her homecoming excitement as she rediscovers "my room -- with my window." But the nursery also reminds Ranevskaya of her father’s death and one month later the drowning of her son, an event that precipitated her exile. It is both a specific location and a metaphor for memory and loss, for what needs to be left behind. On the mostly bare stage, Mendes spotlights the individuals who must make sense out of a changing world, where landed gentry are vanishing. Some freed serfs wander the countryside starving while others rise to form the new middle class. Rich oriental carpets as symbols of warmth and home are spread and removed.

Whenever a creative genius emends a work of art, the original is going to change. Tom Stoppard, whose "Coast of Utopia" trilogy thrilled New York and London audiences a few seasons back, has returned to Russia with this reworking of Chekhov’s masterpiece. He dramatizes throw-away lines, clarifies the interactions, refines characters, simplifies some of the dialogue: in short, transforms the more rambling play into a streamlined machine. The Cherry Orchard, the first presentation by the newly formed Bridge Project, a troupe of prominent American and English players who plan to bring annual productions to select international venues, is exciting, compelling, poignant--theater at its best.

Chekhov, the grandson of a serf, was a self-made man who rubbed elbows with all classes. As a physician, he was the consummate observer, and his plays are filled with well-rounded eccentrics. Mendes, who became a household name after directing the film "American Beauty," loves to polish the edges so that each character has a memorable moment. "The Cherry Orchard" is no exception. When she greets Ranevskaya and Anya, her adoptive mother and sister, we see how lovely Varya (Rebecca Hall), who is worn down by work, can be. And when the proposal she has awaited for two years almost comes, then fizzles, she wilts and fades before our eyes.

Ethan Hawke as Trofimov, an aging student who gets lost in expounding his expansive theories, is transformed by his love for Anya and closes the first act with a electric jolt of passion as the lovers run off to be alone. As Anya, the heir to nothing but debt and good manners, Morven Christie blooms with life in a remarkable nuanced performance. Anya becomes a symbol of hope for the family as she resolves to make a new path for herself. Dakin Matthews makes the most of the usually thankless role of a portly indebted landowner, who borrows from anyone and then, to the amazement of everyone, repays the debt. The depressed redheaded governess (Selina Cadell) wows us with a magic act, and Yasha (Josh Hamilton) is pure cad, who seduces and dumps Dunyasha, a besotted servant, with memorable indifference. What a joy to see these gifted performers in ensemble and in the spotlight--and to see a Chekhov play that is so fresh, it’s as though I were discovering it for the first time.

I have some reservations. I do miss the bustling, confusing, vibrant original, but my main problem is the finale, with Firs’ prolonged death scene, a symbol for the end of the old order. I prefer more of a balance between Mme. Ranevskaya’s departure and the death of the family servant, with the emphasis on life continuing in Paris and with Anya. I like to feel the empty house and miss the family, not be pulled into a sentimentality that seems alien to Chekhov. But this is a minor disagreement with a production that grabbed my heart and head and kept me totally engaged for almost three hours.

The next production of the Bridge Project at BAM is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Then the project moves to London, Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Greece.

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