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Columbia Spectator Staff

Sam Mendes' production of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard is a precarious balance of extremes. Merging the Russian playwright's naturalist text with a 21st century aesthetic, Mendes fuses a touch of symbolism, comedic flare, and contemplative, existential themes in his production of the play. Showing at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 8, The Cherry Orchard is a mesmerizing exploration of solitude, decay, and humor in the threatening face of change. Cheknov tells the story of a Russian aristocrat and her family's return to their estate, which they had been forced to sell due to financial troubles. Chekhov's deep and complex work, when adapted by comedic playwright Tom Stoppard, seems as if it should be imbued with contradiction. But Mendes is not daunted by the challenge—he approaches The Cherry Orchard with a daring hand. At the end of Act Two, Mendes adeptly portrays one of the most contested moments in Orchard. The action of the play is interrupted by "the sound of a string breaking, a dying sound, a sad sound." Mendes takes a dramatic, symbolist approach to this moment—the light shifts, the theater trembles with an ominous groan, and six silhouettes appear against a bleak white backdrop. These ghosts remind the audience of the political unrest surging through the Russian serf classes. This powerfully stark symbol breaks the flow of humor and naturalistic dialogue like an ice pick, sending shock waves of political significance through the play. Stoppard's adaptation is potently humorous, but it stays true to Chekhov's original work. With Mendes' direction and the cast's masterful acting, the characters are both lightheartedly comical and heart-wrenchingly complex. Charlotta, played by Selina Cadell, is the ideal embodiment of the comedic and tragic solitude that infuses the play. Rebecca Hall delivers a luminous performance as Varya, whose awkward gait and stark beauty personify a painful struggle against solitude. Sinéad Cusack gives a strong turn as Madame Ranevskaya , the extroverted, fading bloom of the estate. But it is Simon Russell Beale who single-handedly carries the most moving scene of the production, celebrating his newfound ownership of the cherry orchard by violently tearing down all the chairs on the stage in a tyrannical dance. Steeped in the perplexing, invisible power of money, he consumes the stage in a moment of sadistic victory over his oppressors. The set and music epitomize the contradiction between new and old—a cavernous wooden stage surrounds period furniture, and traditional Russian folk music is juxtaposed against ambient modern classical music. Despite Mendes' creative direction, the naturalistic vibrancy of the original The Cherry Orchard script remains strong. The Cherry Orchard is a bold production, focused specifically on the comedic potential of the play. But you will forget it is a comedy. You will forget you are watching a play and escape into a broken house in a broken country looking ahead to a frightening future. The Cherry Orchard is running now through March 8 at the Harvey Theater at BAM in Brooklyn. Tickets start at $30.

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