The Bridge Project is the name given to the two New York and London theatrical co-productions directed by Oscar winning director Sam Mendes, currently playing at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The first production this year features veteran actor Anthony O’Donnell alongside host of American and British luminaries in Shakespeare’s most beguiling comedy As You Like It.
From the first scene in this engaging new show you can tell Mendes is planning a departure from theatrical tradition. When the two brothers Orlando and Oliver come to blows its clear that Mendes has in mind a startlingly new telling of the classic tale. That his new production works as well as it does is a tribute to his skill.
Shakespeare’s genius is to focus relentlessly on the ties that bind and the acts that sunder them, one of the reasons the play remains as fresh today as the year it was written, and Mendes finds ample opportunity to wed the modern to the classic so that the play achieves a striking level of modernity throughout.
But the life at the court of Duke Frederick has never seemed so ominous, so full of treachery. In Mendes staging even the Edenic forest of Arden has lost a lot of its former innocence, and when the poor banished travelers reach it they find that it’s shrouded in bitter snow.
As Rosalind, the heart and soul of the production, Juliet Rylance hits the right notes but her wings are oddly clipped by the shadows that form around her. A technically skilled actress who grasps every facet of her whirlwind character, there’s a weight of melancholy in her performance that is rarely seen in the role.
Christian Carmargo, Rylance’s real life husband, plays her ardent suitor Orlando in a showy bit of casting that turns out not have been the good idea it might have sounded. Carmago often seems more adrift in the role than even his heart-shocked character is, to the point where you actually find yourself hoping Ganymede (Rosalind’s disguised alter ego) will slap some necessary sense into him.
As Celia, Rosalind’s devoted cousin, Michelle Beck is obviously miscast in a part that she’s far too much of a theatrical dynamo to excel in. Beck chafes at the requests of her watchful and insular character, preferring to speed through her lines and observations as though she can’t wait to be done with the role.
The uneven casting is compounded by the strength of Stephen Dillane’s turn as the melancholy Jaques. At times an apparent stand in for the playwright himself, Dillane is pitch perfect as the wet blanket who can see past the momentary pleasures that dazzle lesser minds to the darkness that always lies beyond them. Even his detached reading of the seven ages of man, which is one of the highlights of the show, illustrates how deeply the actor has connected with the play.
But a play always depends on its players, even a great one like As You Like It. Mendes in this case has assembled an uneven cast that either excel or are merely adequate till you begin to feel that you’re at two different shows, with two separate casts, simultaneously. The poor casting doesn’t break down along predictable Americans versus Brits lines; it might be helpful if it did. Whilst it’s true that British actors have an advantage over their American counterparts when it comes to the cadences and rhythms of Elizabethan drama, in this production it’s still a toss up between both.
As Corin the shepherd, a small but central role, Anthony O’Donnell gives a master class in Shakespearian acting to his fellow cast members. He knows how to find the lived reality in his lines and gives them back to the audience delightedly. O’Donnell also knows how to take his time; he doesn’t belabor or mug for a quick laugh. He’s the only person onstage all evening that you will believe belongs in a forest and he’s certainly the only one who knows how to survive there.
Mendes production is cool and cerebral and brilliantly executed, but it’s uninvolving. Even the weddings and dances feel provisional and those long shadows, that haunt this chilly production and fall everywhere on set designer Tom Piper’s stage, keep growing. Mendes seems anxious to remind us of the tragedies that followed on the heels of Shakespeare’s sunniest play.
As You Like It, now playing at BAM, Brooklyn. For tickets call (718) 636-4100.