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PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

Mendes directs, and Emily Watson stars in top-notch double-bill at BAM Harvey

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On Saturday night, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, theatergoers gazed starry-eyed at actors Harvey Keitel, Bernadette Peters, Kate Winslet, Frances McDormand and Nathan Lane. And they were just in the audience.

The giants of the Great White Way came out for the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night." Both "Twelfth Night" and Donmar’s "Uncle Vanya" are directed by Sam Mendes ("Cabaret," "American Beauty"), and his efforts were met with standing ovations and three curtain calls each - and for good reason.

Both "Twelfth Night" and "Uncle Vanya" will be presented in repertory at BAM through March 9. (On six Saturdays it will be possible to see both "Twelfth Night" and "Uncle Vanya" with a matinee and evening performance.) The comic "Twelfth Night," however, can’t help but seem less important than the powerfully affecting "Uncle Vanya."

The lead actors all play roles in both productions. David Bradley’s transformation from the self-centered and haughty retired professor, Alexander Serebryakov, in "Uncle Vanya" to his utterly long-limbed buffoon, Sir Andre Aguecheek, in "Twelfth Night" is astounding. In the latter, Bradley almost seems to deliver the punch lines physically, embodying the comedy of a Charlie Chaplin or Jerry Lewis.

Selina Cadell’s metamorphosis from disapproving mother of Uncle Vanya to the saucy gentlewoman Maria in "Twelfth Night" has an equally jaw-dropping effect.

Of the two plays, Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" (newly updated by Brian Friel), is especially delightful - albeit in a mournful way. The workaday world of Uncle Vanya’s estate is turned on its ear by the arrival of the professor and his young wife, Yelena, played by Helen McCrory.

Even the train of Yelena’s skirt is a delight; McCrory makes it twitch like the tail of a strutting cat. (Kudos should also go to costume designer Mark Thompson. When McCrory, as Olivia in "Twelfth Night," flings off her velvet cloak to seduce Cesario, the gasping in the audience is as much for her bold gesture as it is for the exquisite art deco gown she wears so well.)

The aptly named Mark Strong gives a commanding performance as Dr. Mikhail Astrov in "Uncle Vanya." It is an impeccable exhibition of barely restrained vigor, lust (for Yelena) and self-destruction, all the while managing to exude a sexy, dark confidence.

It is easy to get carried away tossing accolades at these actors because of their flashier roles. Their characters, after all, exude an appealing confidence.

It is the tormented, real performances of Simon Russell Beale, as Uncle Vanya, and Emily Watson, as his workhorse niece Sonya, that break the audience’s heart. They transmit the play’s power.

Watson has flabbergasted audiences with her riveting portrayals of unusual women, especially in her 1996 film debut - Oscar nominated - as Bess McNeill in Lars Von Trier’s "Breaking the Waves." Watson received another Oscar nomination for "Hilary and Jackie," and praise for her roles in "Gosford Park" and last year’s "Punch-Drunk Love."

When in the role of the homely Sonya in "Uncle Vanya," after rejection upon rejection, she finally laments that even schoolchildren have called her "stupid Sonya," this reviewer was shamelessly unable to shut off the waterworks.

Beale plays the ambition-free Uncle Vanya, who charms with his cutting wit, generosity and consuming love for Yelena. He is magnificent as he pines for her on the dining room table and when he literally grovels at her feet.

"Twelfth Night" is a different animal altogether - it is lighthearted, although in a subdued way - with heavily shrouded women in mourning clothes and an ocean of flickering candles behind them.

Beale is again excellent, this time as the supercilious, puritanical servant Malvolio with his grand ambition of a union with his mistress, Olivia. When his love for Olivia is mistaken for madness, his anguished pleas for help - even while hidden behind a mask and straitjacket - are chilling. Beale becomes the victim of the nasty cruelty of which only humans are capable. His arcing descent, from prideful steward, to preening peacock in his yellow socks hoping to secure Olivia’s affection, to his final angry rebuke at the finale, is a masterful performance.

There are, of course, many laughs to be had, supplied by the jester, Feste (Anthony O’Donnell), Sir Toby Belch (Paul Jesson) and Bradley as Aguecheek, who also double as a surprisingly lyrical and melodic a cappella trio.

Anthony Ward’s set design provides an earth-bound background of tall, wavy grasses for "Uncle Vanya" beyond its rustic dining room, and fills the mythical setting of "Twelfth Night" with dozens of lanterns hanging from the ceiling and candles flickering up from the rear of the stage.

The large picture frame that stands center stage in "Twelfth Night" is a device that often tempers the comedy on stage by framing pain: at times the subject is a mournfully shrouded and grieving Olivia, and other times, it is Viola, missing her own brother, believed to have been drowned in their shipwreck.

Mendes, director of the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty," the Tony Award-winning production of "Cabaret" and the scandalously nude Nicole Kidman in "The Blue Room," returned to BAM to direct these two productions as a grand finale to his 10-year run as founder and artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. (Next, he will direct the Broadway revival of "Gypsy," starring audience member Peters, which opens in April.)

To understand why Mendes is so highly respected is to watch McCrory make her first entrance as Yelena. All is silent as she sashays across the width of the stage and lets a flower in her hand slowly swing through the air in an ennui-filled circle until it lands on the table in a satisfying whap! This is a perfect example of the perfect visual wit with which Mendes directs his actors.

Whether you see both plays on separate evenings or on the same day, the opportunity to see such talented actors undertake such radical transformations and still render top-notch performances in each, is too important to miss.

 

William Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" and Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," adapted by Brian Friel, will be presented by the Donmar Warehouse at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. through March 9. Tickets are $30, $55 and $75. For show dates, times and tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

A BAMdialogue with director Sam Mendes will take place Feb. 5 at 6 pm at BAM Rose Cinemas. Tickets are $8.

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