The Cherry Orchard at BAM

by |
01/13/2009 2:00 PM |

The things that differentiate the loftily named Bridge Project from any other show that might originate with London’s Old Vic and then have its American run at BAM are mostly things that matter more to the people involved in the making of the show than the audience, except as far as the moderately celebrity-heavy credits are concerned. Staging The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale (the latter beginning next month) in repertory is more of a novelty for the cast and crew facing the challenges and serendipitous discoveries of the dual productions than for an audience that, likely as not, will see the plays a month or so apart. (Apparently this is a three-year project. Same observations apply.) So, too, the vaunted level of cross-cultural exchange — the presence of, say, Ethan Hawke in the company and Sam Mendes as director (and Tom Stoppard as preparer-of-the-script) will sell tickets, I guess.

Once you’re in your seat, it’s mostly a matter of the cast’s unmatched accents, which turns out to be a good decision — the characters are supposed to be Russian anyway, so might as well commit to the appropriateness of the different registers, like Hawke’s beatnik-y pronouncements as a high-falutin’, mostly abstract student; or Charlotte Parry’s cockney maid, with her comical, poignant updo.

BAM’s Harvey Theater (the separate building, on Fulton Street) is a high, epic, stripped-down, unvarnished space with enough character that it spills onto the mostly bare, wall-less stage, and prevents Mendes’ staging from appearing antiseptic. This is a mostly minimalist production, the better I guess for Mendes to play up an aura of portentousness with vibrating music (played live, on something like looks like it would be called a vibraphone but is not) at key moments; and, a bridge too far, actual amplifier hums, to go along with heavy-duty set pieces. The long-ignored Russian underclass — the coming future Chekhov’s play recognizes — is harbinged by the back wall of the stage rising, amid an ambient soundtrack throb, to reveal raggedy peasants, lined up as if in a fashion show or something. An echo of the scene at the show’s close, with the radiator hum kicking into high gear to complement the offstage orchard-chopping sound effects; the oh-so-sculpted minimalist sound design, to say nothing of the single-empty-chair set, really don’t do any favors to Chekhov’s already heavily symbolic ending.

Still. This is a great play, well-acted by a cast who, with their disparate accents and strategies, seem to each be working towards some kind of perfect form of the character in the text — a character who, coincidentally, resembles the actor’s persona — classy, brittle Rebecca Hall and shirt-button-straining Simon Russell Beale are highlights. If that approach seems like it’s bound to result in a mismatched cast, it doesn’t — people are always talking past each other in Chekhov; the comedy and pathos of his plays comes from characters who are so busy being themselves that they don’t really pay any attention to anybody else. A few moments of prepackaged aestheticism — some artsy capital-c Choices for your I don’t-go-to-the-theater-but-I’ll-go-to-this-serious-big-name-classic-at-a-hip-spot buck? — really don’t make it this Cherry Orchard any less worthwhile