Theater Review: The Cherry Orchard

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An eloquent look at themes like loss and regret is one reason a classic endures. For example, Chekhov could have been addressing the current economic climate when penning "The Cherry Orchard" in 1904. Indeed, his words about the shifting fortunes of an aristocracy in decline prove as timeless as ever.

OK, so "Orchard" still holds relevance. But for the work to become a must-see event for 2009, three things have happened: acclaimed director Sam Mendes put his unique spin on it, the razor-sharp sensibilities of Tom Stoppard were applied to a new adaptation, and the work is being interpreted via a troupe ranging from Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke to British veteran Simon Russell Beale to new "it" girl Rebecca Hall.

For those not familiar with Chekhov's story, it focuses on the return of Madame Liubov Ranevskaya (Sinead Cusack), her brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) and her young daughter Anya (Morven Christie) to their Russian estate, known far and wide for the beautiful cherry orchard that borders the property. They're greeted by Liubov's plain, ever-sensible adopted daughter Varya (Hall) and serf-turned-landowner Lopahkin (Beale).

Lopahkin tries to tell Liubov how her fortune can be saved by selling the property for the construction of villas, but she refuses to accept reality. As the tale unfolds, secret amours, cruel betrayals and past tragedies come into play with the introduction of Trofimov (Hawke), a tutor who doubles as Anya's lover; elderly servant Firs (Richard Easton), who's trapped in his memories of better days; and ever-scheming valet Yasha (Josh Hamilton), who's part of a love triangle with fellow servant Dunyasha (Charlotte Parry) and clerk Yepikhodov (Tobias Segal).

Against a series of relatively sparse sets, Mendes adroitly lets subtle humor help to define both the upstairs and downstairs members of the household, allowing each of the dozen-odd principals to develop into a three-dimensional character. Later on, he employs some striking staging -- including a spectacularly eye-opening Act 2 introduction -- to convey a dawning sense of menace and doom. His deft use of shadows and disquieting musical bursts add immeasurably to the ambience.

Stoppard's verbiage does its part to make for impressive pacing, which always is a feat when a show approaches three hours. As for the ensemble cast, there's not a weak member in the bunch. However, standouts include Cusack as the short-sighted matriarch, managing to be simultaneously sympathetic and annoying; Hall, whose ability to transform her stunning looks into that of the heartbroken, plain-Jane daughter qualifies as a special effect; Beale's conflicted entrepreneur, haunted by his past as a peasant; and Easton's endearingly doddering servant.

The production marks an auspicious debut to Mendes' ambitious Bridge Project, a three-year collaboration of American and English actors in classics to be performed in both Brooklyn and London. If "Orchard" is any indication of what's ahead for the series, patrons of BAM and the Old Vic should consider themselves truly blessed.

Venue: Harvey Theater at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Through March 8)
Cast: Sinead Cusack, Rebecca Hall, Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Richard Easton, Morven Christie, Paul Jesson, Charlotte Parry
Presented by: Bank of America
Playwrights: Anton Chekhov, Tom Stoppard
Director: Sam Mendes
Set designer: Anthony Ward
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Paul Pyant
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Music: Mark Bennett
Choreographer: Josh Prince