March 3, 2009 / 11:38 PM / 10 years ago

Russia drama classic in NY rings new amid money woes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A family throws money away like there’s no tomorrow, ignoring sound financial advice on how to salvage its finances. Harsh reality arrives and the family finds itself broke and homeless.

It could be a typical New York story these days as the news of a collapsing global economy gets worse by the minute.

Played out on a Brooklyn stage, this is not New York but Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” a Russian classic about an aristocratic family left behind by the sweeping social and economic changes taking place in early 20th century Russia.

British playwright Tom Stoppard breathed contemporary fire into Chekhov’s play, which is running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Starring in the Russian tragicomedy are Britain’s Simon Russell Beale, Irish actress Sinead Cusack and Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke. Sam Mendes, British theater director turned Hollywood filmmaker, directs.

Stoppard, known for his razor-sharp language and wit, spoke about the new production in a recent interview with Newsweek magazine. In it he dismissed the idea that any “contemporary relevance” of Chekhov’s play could be found in the financial crisis: “People have always lost their homes and fortunes.”

Chekhov’s relevance, he said, has to do with the insights about the human condition the physician-turned-playwright had when he wrote the play in 1903. Chekhov, who died a year later at age 44, described it as a comedy but its first director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, directed the play as a tragedy.

“The relevance (of “The Cherry Orchard”) has to do with the thought that human nature doesn’t change very much,” Stoppard said. “His plays reflect the complexity of human psychology and behavior more than any other playwright’s I can think of.”


Mendes’ staging is sparse, using lighting and a few tables, chairs and other furniture to evoke the world of Russia on the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

He emphasizes the many comic elements of the play — a young man spurned in love, whose shoes squeak and who constantly falls over chairs and breaks things. But laughs fade quickly amid tragic outbursts of unhappiness and impotence.

There is a hysterical charm about Cusack’s portrayal of the landowner Ranevskaya, with her split-second shifts between childhood laughter, bitter tears and irony.

Beale gets fewer laughs than Cusack in his hard portrayal of the upwardly mobile but awkward peasant Lopakhin, who tries unsuccessfully to persuade Ranevskaya to divide up her orchard and rent out parcels of the estate to weekend vacationers.

He ends up buying the house and the cherry orchard where his father once worked as a serf, which Stoppard acknowledged was not unlike the fate of the first African American U.S. president, Barack Obama, who said that his father would not have been served in a Washington D.C. restaurant 60 years go.

After its New York run ends next week the Anglo-American Bridge Project’s production heads to Singapore, London and other cities around the globe along with the company’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”.

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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