The Cherry Orchard at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music

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The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov
A new version of the play by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Sam Mendes
The Bridge Project, a Co-production of BAM, The Old Vic, and Neal Street Productions
Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, January 2, 2009—March 8, 2009

Ranevskaya – Sinéad Cusack
Anya – Morven Christie
Varya – Rebecca Hall
Gayev – Paul Jesson
Lopakhin – Simon Russell Beale
Trofimov – Ethan Hawke
Simeonov-Pishchik – Dakin Matthews
Charlotta Ivanovna – Selina Cadell
Yepikhodov – Tobias Segal
Dunyasha – Charlotte Parry
Firs – Richard Easton
Yasha – Josh Hamilton

I’m not quite sure why I went to the new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at BAM expecting to mourn and sympathize with passionate, anxiety-ridden, suffering ordinary people whose every disappointment reminds them of their personal failures and limitations. Instead, in this production with a distinguished British and American cast directed by Sam Mendes, I found an absurdly dysfunctional bunch of freaks and imbeciles who operate under so many layers of delusion that empathy becomes near-impossible. Their emotional lives teeter in some nether-world between melodrama and farce, and their relationship with actual reality is so long-distance that one can’t help but react with more contempt than pity. At the same time, they inhabit a play about class, the transfer of power, historical forces of change, and the housing market. This Cherry Orchard is so stunningly, breathtakingly topical that to see it develop towards its dramatic climax is to lose oneself in Chekhov, making this production an essential revival.

What can one say about the family that owns the fateful estate where the eponymous orchard is rooted? Madame Ranevskaya (Sinéad Cusack, most affecting in the few moments of realistic human compassion that her rueful character is allotted) lives in total denial of the fact that her beloved childhood home is about to be auctioned off – she copes by speaking in romantic flourishes and spending money she doesn’t have. Her haughty, flamboyant brother Gayev (Paul Jesson) at one point actually addresses a bookcase, at length. Dunyasha the housemaid (Charlotte Parry) falls in love with the first creep who gropes her by way of introduction, and hapless hanger-on Yepikhodov (Tobias Segal) just bumps into things (though he does get some choice deadpan lines in Tom Stoppard’s eloquent adaptation that, along with some witty Stoppardisms, mostly succeeds in making Russians sound like Brits). Ranevskaya vividly sets the tone when she announces, “Well, I’ve had my coffee—so it’s time for bed.” It doesn’t take until the opening of the second act, when Charlotta the governess (Selina Cadell) does magic tricks at a party, to realize we’re watching a tedious, embarrassing circus.

And that’s the world, except for when two superb performers enter the scene. Rebecca Hall, as Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya, sometimes seems to be the only one on stage with the capacity for mature, nuanced emotion—everyone else stunted in various iterations of arrested development or senility—and she has a beautiful voice. Then there’s the brilliant Simon Russell Beale as the peasant turned wealthy entrepreneur Lopakhin, in the most definitive interpretation of that character I ever hope to see. I suspect that in many productions, the uneducated Lopakhin is portrayed as a kind of capitalist boor. Nothing could be further from Mr. Beale’s sensitive, gracious, ever-humble and self-conscious middle-aged businessman who tries to save the family from eviction. His plan to subdivide the orchard and lease the land out for summer cottages is a refreshing breath of good sense early on in the play. Later he emerges as the sole voice of reason among the madness, and many of the best moments from the other actors occur when Lopakhin is being snubbed or patronized. Unforgettable is Mr. Jesson’s expression of genteel condescension when Gayev refuses to get up from his armchair to shake Lopakhin’s hand as he says his good-byes in the first act. Ms. Hall and Mr. Beale have a fantastic moment involving an umbrella in the final scene.

There are other pleasures to be gleaned en route to that climactic confrontation, in which the results of the estate auction are revealed. Ms. Parry’s stylized speech patterns are entertaining if excessive, while Mr. Segal soothes with some mellow Chekhovian guitar strumming. Ethan Hawke as an overgrown student—the only cast member to speak in an always-intelligible American accent—has some deliciously hypocritical speeches as he lounges in the countryside and rails against the idleness of some far-off intelligentsia. Later a local band shows up to play some Russian folk tunes. But everything changes when Lopakhin returns from the auction giddy and triumphant. It’s hard to overemphasize the sheer thrill of listening to Mr. Beale as Lopakhin—in an exquisitely subtle scene that makes no explicit allusions—harried, ecstatic, and overcome with emotion, express the wish that his father and grandfather could see what became of the beautiful estate on which they were slaves. “I must be asleep and dreaming,” he says. “It’s the dream of some deep dark imagining.” The effect is devastating, and Chekhov devotees owe themselves the opportunity to bask in the power of the event of this performance.

Things get more ambiguous as the play draws to a close – everyone is weak and culpable to some degree. There are some compelling insights about class and the ways in which it is both pliant and insurmountable. It may be flaws of construction more than anything, but compared to the glorious second act, the first act feels like a slog – mostly exposition and the family being idiotic. This heightens the sense of just deserts later on but makes for an uneven production. Despite these misgivings, this is an excellent staging of a century-old play that’s become irresistibly timely once again.

This production is part of the Bridge Project, in which this Anglo-American cast will continue in repertory with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale starting Feb. 10.

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