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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Bridge Project does Shakespeare, as you may not like it

Last year at this time, director Sam Mendes launched a bold new transcontinental experiment at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Called the Bridge Project, it grew from the simple yet somehow wild idea that English and American artists, despite differences in accents and training, could make beautiful theater together.

The inaugural two-play season - the first of three projected years - showcased British masters Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack alongside Richard Easton (arguably New York's leading classicist) and such audacious local co-conspirators as Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton.

Mendes - the English multitasker behind Broadway's down-and-dirty revival of "Cabaret" and last year's "Revolutionary Road" starring wife Kate Winslet - directed both productions. They ran in rotating repertory here for a month before touring lots of fascinating places in Europe and Asia, finally landing in London in June at Kevin Spacey's Old Vic, a co-producer with BAM and Mendes' operation.

Not everything was wonderful in the tricked-up staging of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." But the mixed company hit its stride in Shakespeare, with an enchanted, extraordinarily lucid vision of "The Winter's Tale."

Of course, we never did find out how these English and American articulations would unite onstage because Mendes mostly casts the Brits as aristocrats and lovers, the Yanks as rustics and clunks. A third style - neither English nor American - never emerged from the combustion.

But it was wonderful to see what the same actors could do in a repertory of alternating plays, and the contrasts rubbed together to make heat and a lot of sparks.

I wish I could say the same for the second season, at least so far. "As You Like It" opened at BAM last week with an all-new company, as planned. The package this time is all Shakespeare, with his late masterwork, "The Tempest," beginning previews next month. Both are directed by Mendes, and both run together through March 13.

This is a particularly dark, even tough update of Shakespeare's romantic comedy about love conquering court corruption. People with a low threshold for Shakespeare's raucous peasantry - and you know who we are - should welcome the relative lack of rustic silliness. Still, the Forest of Arden is definitely not a jolly place for the exiled Duke's merry men. The woods, designed by Tom Piper, are cold, with dark, barn-rough wood and damp fog. And having the evil Duke's people waterboard Oliver and put a disturbingly familiar sack on his head before banishing him to find his exiled brother Orlando, well, this does put a damper on the fun-loving, gender-bending country fun.

Mendes clearly wants to establish the real stakes of banishment before love has a chance to triumph. And though it would be nice if Thomas Sadoski, as Touchstone, the clown, were not always so sad, the solemnity is not the real issue here.

The problem, it hurts to say, is the American actors. This year's company is not just less well known than the first year's roster. They are not as good. It is hard to believe that Mendes and company took advantage of the massive talent pool in New York and the country. Is this really the best he could find with classic experience for such a high-profile international program? This casting almost seems intended to remind theatergoers why so many of them like their classics with a silky, handsome British accent.

We certainly get one, and much more, from Stephen Dillane, best known here for his Tony-winning performance in "The Real Thing" and the most conspicuously real thing in the company. He doesn't have terribly much to do here as Jaques, but he has style and presence and even sings a wicked Bob Dylan imitation. When Dillane says "All the world's a stage," we are relieved he knows exactly why we care. What an enticement to have him as the magnificent flawed Prospero in "The Tempest," which begins previews Feb. 16.

This, of course, is the wonder of a repertory company - even a short-term one. There will be the chance to see Alvin Epstein, the formidable American stage veteran, show more of his range. Juliet Rylance, a lyrical if not especially charming Rosaline, will be Prospero's complicated daughter, Miranda.

Repertory has had a hard time catching on in this country, but Bridge Project has the chance to change that. Also, significantly, the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park is offering its first two-play repertory summer. Most of the same actors (Jesse L. Martin, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Lily Rabe among them) will appear in both "Winter's Tale," directed by Michael Greif ("Rent") and "The Merchant of Venice," (starring Al Pacino) directed by Dan Sullivan, who staged last summer's wonderful "Twelfth Night."

American Shakespeare has come a long way since Joseph Papp and resident theater directors began insisting on it. After this "As You Like It," I'm sad to find myself remembering that George Bernard Shaw called England and America "two countries separated by a common language." If Mendes aims to find some sort of international style, his bridge needs better balance.

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