Simon Russell Beale, Michael Braun, Selina Cadell, Morven Christie, Sinad Cusack, Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Paul Jesson, Aaron Krohn, Dakin Matthews, Mark Nelson, Charlotte Parry, Gary Powell, Tobias Segal, Jessical Pollert Smith, Hannah Stokely
Considering the current economic climate and the dwindling presence of big-budget theatrical spectacles in the Big Apple this season, there is much in the way of old-school aplomb to applaud in the current production of The Cherry Orchard.
Staged at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, it is part of the Bridge Project, a collaborative initiative forged by the colliding efforts of BAM, the Old Vic in London, and director Sam Mendes’s Neal Street Productions.
Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, which will eventually run in repertory at BAM alongside Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, was originally produced in 1904 and is a reminder that the heart of the theatre lies in the power of language and the interpretive skills of the actors who give life to the playwright’s vision.
The expansive scope of the Bridge Project’s current repertory-style company calls to mind Tom Stoppard’s three-part The Coast of Utopia a few seasons back at Lincoln Center, a few holdovers from which are present here, including adaptor Tom Stoppard, actors Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke, opulent costume designer Catherine Zuber, and composer Mark Bennett.
While those plays several years ago seemed at times bloated with historical import and long-windedness, however, the play at hand this time provides director Sam Mendes (who was not involved with The Coast of Utopia) with the opportunity to present a richly acted, well-designed production while maintaining a sense of intimacy and economy of craft that’s just right for Chekhov’s tragicomic take on real estate and family in turn-of-the-century Russia. In a reverent new version by Stoppard, the play feels a fresh as its titular cherry blossoms, full of light and undercut by daubs of shadow.
As the play begins, Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev are returning to Russia from Paris, where they’ve spent the last five years with Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya and ailing lover. Her adopted daughter Varya and the merchant Lophakin are waiting for her with news that the family’s cherry orchard will be sold if they can’t come up with enough money to save it, a dilemma for which Lophakin presents an easy fix that Ranevskaya can’t quite wrap her head around. The play, which Chekhov considered a comedy, nevertheless possesses a darker political undercurrent, highlighted by the servant character of Firs, who was freed from serfdom only to continue to follow his master, Ranevskaya’s grandfather.
The production is certeinly helped by the fact that Mendes has assembled a first-rate ensemble hailing from both shores of the Atlantic, each individual personality contributing to the success of the whole. The best of the pack are Simon Russell Beale and Sinad Cusack as haughty Lophakin and oblivious, vulnerable Ranevskaya respectively, though Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall, and particularly Ethan Hawke, whose performance as perpetual student Trofimov is a departure from his self-indulgent role in Coast of Utopia, acquit themselves with finesse as well.
Mendes’s stylish, fluid direction and crisp, elegant set and costume designs from Anthony Ward and Catherine Zuber also bring a sense of lushness and elegance to the proceedings, the stage covered in opulant Persian rugs and cluttered with wooden chairs. Squares of light (Paul Pyant is lighting designer) help to structure the scenes and propel the action forward.
Using little stage magic but ample amounts of subtletly and acting talent, those involved with the Bridge Project’s inaugural production at BAM set the mark high for future productions from Mendes and this top-flight company of actors. The Winter’s Tale is in the wings, premiering February 10, but my fondness for this production will likely remain rooted in my memory long beyond that date.