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.
This play is one of the few great dramas written in the last century and still has a haunting contemporary relevance. It 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 since 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. 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 and neatly fitting them into his own and playwright Tom Stoppard's fresh and free version of the play. Under Mr. Mendes' staging The Cherry Orchard , which premiered in 1904 a few months before Chekhov's death, lets the play live and breathe and laugh and cry and speak 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 here by wonderful Irish/English actress Sinead Cusack in a 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 with the estate and its magnificent cherry orchard 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 ( Paul Jesson ) is of no help - he acts like a child popping lemon drops, giving senseless speeches to a 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 her adopted daughter and the estate's stewardess, who longs to marry a Lopakhin, a successful town merchant, who seems game to the idea, but can't get up the nerve to propose.
Lopakhin, is acted with exceptional skill by Simon Russell Beale,- one of the most talented actors on the English speaking stage today- and the only character in the play that has any sense about the family's financial doom. He grew up son of a peasant 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 equally share the spotlight 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 Ranevskaya returning to the estate in a tumult of laughter and excitement with the servants young and old running about but soon the atmosphere shifts to one of tears and frustration. Lopakhin presents his idea to sell the estate ,to 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 do it-<