Friday, January 16, 2009

The Cherry Orchard


By Anton Chekhov. Directed by Sam Mendes. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (CLOSED)

Critics for the most part are quite impressed with Sam Mendes and Tom Stoppard's take on Anton Chekhov's final play. This production--the first of a new entity called "The Bridge Project" which aims to bring together the best American and British theatre artists to work on classics--gets high marks for staging, acting and design. Some critics--notably Wall St. Journal's Terry Teachout and Bloomberg's John Simon--do not care for Sam Mendes' more expressionistic directorial touches in the second half, and even reviewers who like it frequently compare it unfavorably with the recent production of The Seagull on Broadway.

CurtainUp A
(Elyse Sommer) Actually, Tom Stoppard's beautifully accessible adaptation emphasizes the comic aspects of the play so that Beale isn't the only actor to dish up helpings of laughter. His version also lends itself to director Sam Mendes' giving free reign to the actors to speak in their natural accents. Mendes' directorial approach overall supports the emphasis on humor and at the same time depict the menace of the approaching revolution and its effect on the peasants and those who once ruled them. The stylish visual fillips work well enough to make this one of the engaging and enjoyable versions of this wonderful play that I've seen.

The New Yorker A
(Unsigned) This is truly the Chekhov play for the moment—it’s about facing up to economic reality, after all—but Sam Mendes’s lucid production of Tom Stoppard’s adaptation offers more than just relevance, teasing out the play’s deeper tragedy, of lost time. The talented cast (which will soon perform “The Winter’s Tale,” in repertory) is led by Sinéad Cusack, quietly ravishing as Madame Ranevsky, who fritters away the days as her family estate approaches the auction block.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) In this spare, elegant production for the new Anglo-American company the Bridge Project, Stoppard and director Sam Mendes force Ranevskaya and her family and friends to look in the mirror at their vanishing, frivolous way of life but also allow them their comforting illusions. Stoppard emphasizes hilarious comedy and merciless soul-searching in his idiomatic script, while Mendes carefully keeps high-concept moments to a minimum, giving them stronger impact and avoiding obvious symbolism.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Chekhov's last masterpiece, now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, is a play of unbearable heartbreak — a past lost, a present bleak and a future uncertain. Sounds right in sync with these tough economic times... In the end, what makes Mendes' take on The Cherry Orchard so affecting is its clarity in portraying loss. There is an awareness by the time the evening ends that something important has disappeared, never to return. The effect is haunting.

Theatre News Online A
(Bernard Carragher) I think this maiden endeavor of The Bridge Project is a remarkable achievement that will get richer the more it plays. The actors I suspect will jell more into an ensemble and the company's accents which are now all over the map - from Ms. Cusack's impeccable Queen's English to Mr. Hawke's flat colloquial American way of speaking - will settle down and become somewhat unified. That Mr. Mendes and his actors have achieved so much in such a short time is to use twenty-first century jargon: awesome

Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Not at all surprisingly, the director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road has taken the political ball and run with it in this staging, whose second half is full of expressionistic gestures that are all too clearly meant to let us know that revolution is just around the corner. The first half, on the other hand, is wholly faithful to the complex spirit of Chekhov -- I can't recall another production of The Cherry Orchard in which comedy and elegy were so well balanced -- and while I had problems with the third and fourth acts, there was never a moment when I was anything other than enthralled.

New York Post A-
(Frank Scheck) Mendes' staging is filled with evocative touches: the melancholy score, performed by musicians perched in the side boxes; the masked ball, which begins the second act; Beale's violent toppling over of chairs, which serves as a perfect visual metaphor for the orchard's fate... The visually spare production fits in beautifully at the artfully dilapidated Harvey, though one wonders if it's mandatory that Oriental rugs cover the stage in every production there.

NYMag A-
(Dan Kois) People spend a lot of time talking about money, asking for money, looking on the floor for money, and arguing about money in the intelligent, well-acted revival of The Cherry Orchard at BAM that kicks off the Bridge Project. “There was lots of money in here yesterday, and now there’s hardly any,” complains the spendthrift Liubov Andreeva Ranevskaya (Sinéad Cusack) as she digs in her purse. “I’ve always squandered money without a thought, like some madwoman.” An aristocrat fallen on hard times, Liuba has returned to her family’s estate after years abroad, the house mere months away from public auction. You can’t fault this production for its timeliness: Who are the Ranevskayas but a family that’s in over its head on the mortgage? Director Sam Mendes has never been afraid of a showy flourish, onstage or off; take, for example, the Bridge Project itself, a cross-Atlantic experiment in classic repertory theater that intends to pack its productions with first-string actors and zing them merrily around the globe. In this Cherry Orchard, a sure-footed reworking by Tom Stoppard, the production’s big gestures are gorgeously realized but unnecessary.

NY Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) This vibrant revival - the debut production by the Bridge Project linking American and English actors and theaters - has more going for it than good timing. There's Sam Mendes' astute direction, Tom Stoppard's lucid translation, graceful designs and performances to match.

TheatreNewsOnline A-
(Matt Windman) In all, The Cherry Orchard is a terrific start to a genuinely exciting enterprise.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) We all know the hoary clichés about English versus American actors. British thespians have mellifluous elocution and restrained physicality; Americans shout and smash furniture. They have technique, we got honesty. You can leave most of your transatlantic preconceptions at the door: Sam Mendes’s intelligent, satisfying revival of The Cherry Orchard features a neatly complementary Anglo-American cast. If there’s any roughing up of movables, it’s done by the very British Simon Russell Beale, whose Lopakhin celebrates his purchase of Ranevskaya’s estate by impishly tipping over a dozen wooden chairs.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) It's no match for this season's haunting reinvestigation of another Chekhov play, "The Seagull," but Sam Mendes' robust staging of Stoppard's witty new adaptation boasts strong ensemble work, centered by the gravitas and emotional nuance of Simon Russell Beale's riveting Lopakhin.

NYPress B
(Leonard Jacobs) 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.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) The problem in playing Chekhov — and particularly “The Cherry Orchard” — is that the performers must convey the feeling of characters trapped in the solitary confinement of their own thoughts yet itching to connect. That double-edged sensibility was captured so seamlessly by the recent Broadway revival of “The Seagull”: the sense that no matter how alone the characters were, they all breathed the same oxygen. Mr. Mendes’s “Cherry Orchard” isn’t on that level. This is not because of the mixing of British and American performers. (The same cast will appear in repertory in Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale” starting Feb. 10.) “The Seagull,” remember, was similarly cross-cultural. But here some of the acting is too much on the surface in its big, eccentric flourishes. (Of the supporting actors, Dakin Matthews, as a sentimental, porcine landowner, is best at making those exaggerations feel organic.) On the other hand, Mr. Hawke’s goofy, aggressive naturalism in the role of a scruffy political idealist seems wrenchingly out of context. (That same performance worked in Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia,” but it’s getting old.)

Bloomberg News B-
(John Simon) This is in most ways a respectful production, solidly acted yet presenting some problems... Mendes has directed ably, though not without some annoying quirks. He has obtruded a few heavily symbolic touches -- call them expressionist, if you will -- that clash with the basic naturalism, including one (an ascending backdrop revealing a menacing lineup of peasants) clearly pinched from Jack O’Brien’s staging of “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard, whose decent translation is used here.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) In this new version by Tom Stoppard, the play's changing Russia is perceived almost in retrospect, as if Chekhov's exquisitely naturalistic serious comedy were really just an extension of Stoppard's own wonderful and massive epic about 19th-century Russian intellectual change, The Coast of Utopia.This is interesting as history. But Chekhov saw his world best in the present tense - as emotional excavation, not emotional spectacle. Mendes cheapens significant lines with melodramatic underscoring....The expressionistic effects tend to flatten instead of heighten what Chekhov called "the subtle, elusive beauty of human grief." Most victimized is Sinead Cusack, the blazingly gifted Irish-born actress whose portrayal of Ranevskaya, the vain and endangered landowner, crosses too often into the soap-opera delusional. As Trofimov, the perpetual student, Ethan Hawke is encouraged to repeat too much of his impressively febrile character in "Utopia." But Josh Hamilton has an insinuating erotic charge as Yasha, the social-climbing servant and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona) is especially haunting as Varya, the long-suffering adopted daughter.

Theatermania C-
(Brian Scott Lipton) Indeed, [Sam Mendes and Tom Stoppard] have failed to locate the deep melancholia at the heart of Chekhov's work, instead indulging in cheap laughs, easy sentiment, and the occasional unnecessary coup de theatre. They haven't completely misunderstood Chekhov, of course; the play's message -- that time has passed from the old to the new as the class system in turn-of-the-century Russia becomes extinct -- comes through very loud and clear. But the missed connections for love and understanding between and among its characters too often fade into the background when they need to come to the foreground.

AP A 13;CU A 13; TNY A 13; TNO A 13; BS A 13; NYDN A- 12; TNO A-; WSJ A- 12; NYMAG A- 12; NYP A- 12; Variety B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; NYP B 10; NYT B 10 ; BB B- 9; ND B- 9; TM C- 6; TOTAL: 191 / 15 = 11.23 (B+)

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