When you’re 43-year-old director Sam Mendes—Oscar for American Beauty,Tony nomination for Cabaret, Kate Winslet for a wife, an O.B.E. from Queen Elizabeth II—you can write your own ticket. It’s not that Mendes hasn’t shown the artistic fruits of such ticket writing, but he’s exceedingly rare in that he shifts so fluidly between stage and film, picking projects and venues as they tickle him. His latest effort is The Bridge Project, an 18-actor ensemble Mendes created with Kevin Spacey, who runs London’s Old Vic, and Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Composed of an equal number of British and American actors, the project takes the old idea of repertory—in this case, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale—and recharges it with new blood: Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Richard Easton (for the Yanks) and Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack and Rebecca Hall (for the Brits).
And The Cherry Orchard is certainly an auspicious start (The Winter’s Tale opens Feb. 20), a play yet again unveiled as a comedy with tragic tints, as Chekhov asserted. Mendes over-imposes his directorial will on the play, however, and so the balance is off. Had he not bullied the play so, its tragic currents would no doubt have risen organically to the surface.
The last 15 minutes of the play, when Mendes’ ideas clash with the actors’ impeccable impulses, is as painful as it is powerful.
This is one of those situations in which you want to the actors to know how stunning they are before confessing how much the evening misfires. As Ranevskaya, a landowner with hardly a ruble, Cusack is all delusion and grandeur, but not insane. So when Mendes renders a crucial Act 1 moment (she and Gaev, her brother, played by Paul Jesson, hear music that no one hears) like a sequence from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the result is maddening. Still, when Mendes oversteps, Tom Stoppard’s superb adaptation is there to root us back in Chekhov, although this version is very much his own as well. Ranevskaya, who has been abroad for five years, is so broke that her only real option— offered by the merchant Lopakhin, played cathartically by Beale—is to auction off the estate, divide it into parcels and chop down the family’s cherry orchard so summertime cottages may be built. Her clear unwillingness to face facts, very different from being insane, also infects the play’s other characters, including those whose secondary subplots represented Chekhov’s lighter touches.
In lesser presentations of the play, Lopakhin can be so tortured by the memory of his forefathers as serfs to Ranevskaya’s ancestors that when he announces that it is he who has bought the estate, The Cherry Orchard turns crass as a revenge play. Not so here: Beale is guilt-ridden, not haunted, by his fate and the effect is galvanizing. It’s left unexplored by the dialogue, but one terrific move on Mendes’ part is to have Lopakhin express his affection for Ranevskaya in a way that Chekhov likely never intended.
As Varya, Hall plays against type— homely—as Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, hopelessly in love with Lopakhin. Here, too, Mendes’ scene overstretching isn’t bad:When Lopakhin tries to ask Varya for her hand, the timing is perfection and the soul of what this transcontinental theatrical experiment ought to be. As the perpetual student Trofimov, Hawke mimics his work in Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia—voicing the intelligentsia’s ideas and spooking the bourgeoisie. As young manservant Yasha, Hamilton is the opposite—a cocksure buck who hates all things Russian. And as elderly Firs, a manservant born to serfdom and pining for it, Easton’s matchless gifts relegate Mendes’ missteps to what they really are: the fanciful excesses of a privileged career.
The Cherry Orchard
Through Mar. 28. BAM Harvey, 651 Fulton St. (at Rockwell Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-636-4100; times vary, $36.50-126.50