Monday, February 23, 2009

Building Bridges

The Cherry Orchard
Written by Anton Chekhov
The Winter’s Tale
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke

January 3-March 8, 2009
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

Beale and Hall in
The Cherry Orchard
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Beale and Hall in
The Winter's Tale
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The Bridge Project--a cooperative effort between London’s Old Vic and the Brooklyn Academy of Music--debuted its first productions at BAM’s Harvey Theater. The idea is to bring together actors from both sides of the pond as a repertory company to perform in a pair of plays over several weeks. British director Sam Mendes leads a trio of Brits (Sinead Cusack, Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall) and a trio of North Americans (Richard Easton, Josh Hamilton and Ethan Hawke) in two autumnal classics: Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, and one of Shakespeare’s last works, The Winter’s Tale.

For the most part, these initial Bridge offerings are a success: Mendes’s brisk, mostly uncluttered stagings allow his actors to be front and center, with directorial flourishes kept to a happy minimum. (That Anthony Ward’s sets are mostly reduced to a few props--chairs, tables, candles, balloons--suggest ease of traveling, since these productions will travel to Singapore, Spain, Germany, Greece and New Zealand in the coming months.)

With Tom Stoppard’s witty translation in hand, Mendes plays The Cherry Orchard more for laughs than drama, which works when the right actors hit the right notes, since we can clearly see the disappointed, defeated souls behind the smiling masks, right through the bittersweet ending.

The Winter’s Tale--one of Shakespeare’s most complex, even inscrutable, plays--asks far more of its actors and director, and is a far bumpier ride. Mendes brilliantly sets up the dramatic conflict of a king jealously accusing his faithful (and pregnant) queen of infidelity, setting off betrayals and deaths, followed by reunions and even a resurrection.

The first act scenes in Sicilia are marked by a real ominousness; unfortunately, the comic scenes in neighboring Bohemia are too much of a piece with the current mania for dumbing down “difficult” Shakespeare. However, the famous “exit, pursued by a bear” moment is cleverly handled, and Mendes stages two shimmering coups de theatre as a prelude to a most satisfying wrap-up.

The Cherry Orchard’s cohesive ensemble is the result of the play’s naturalistic setting and language. Beale and Hall are heartbreaking, while Cusack, Hamilton and Hawke play up their characters’ boisterousness without undue hamming it up.

It’s in The Winter’s Tale, that the British contingent truly comes up aces. Hall is meltingly lovely as Hermione the queen (and freezes into a statue-like pose with extraordinary stillness), Beale’s clear diction underlines the king Leontes‘ belief in his vengeful accusations of adultery, and Cusack is forceful as Paulina, the queen‘s most honest defender. Conversely, although Hawke has fun playing the roguish Autolycus as a guitar-strumming troubadour, Hamilton is uncomfortably stiff as Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, and Easton mugs too gleefully as the Old Shepherd and as the chorus, Time.

On the whole, however, these stagings--flaws and all--are good enough to make us look forward to future Bridge Projects.

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