Courting Chekhov: Cate Blanchett on Broadway

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Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Anton Chekhov wrote the title-less play now known as Platonov when he was a 21-year old (or so) medical student. The youthful work languished before being unearthed after the playwright’s death. Eventually it was adapted by Michael Frayn as Wild Honey and by David Hare under its original title.

Now, Andrew Upton, artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, has taken even more liberties than Frayn or Hare — presumably on the assumption that their versions were cumbersome and unwieldy and would benefit from more doctoring.

Among those liberties, as with Frayn, is its title. For Upton it’s The Present; at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre, the word is cagily used for two meanings. The first is to acknowledge that, while set in Russia, the play unfolds in today’s world. As such, it acquires an energy that very nearly disregards the languor generally found in Chekhov’s classics. It’s as if Upton is presenting  (pun intended) the raucous life now being lived under Vladimir Putin’s reign. In other words, The Present has a political aura resonant with today’s headlines.

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The second use of “present” is its meaning as a gift. When the play begins, a group of hyperkinetic friends gather to celebrate the 40th birthday of landowner Anna (Cate Blanchett). One of the celebrants gives the birthday gal a pistol. This being Chekhov—who famously said that if a firearm is introduced, it must go off before the final fade-out — some audience members know what to expect. (And, in fact, more than the pistol goes off. So does a rifle, triggered twice by Anna, indoors. Curiously, the resulting blast doesn’t much damage the ceiling.)

Of the party guests, the most troubled, and troublemaking, is Mikhail Platonov, called Misha (Richard Roxburgh). Married to the deferential, habitually timid Sasha (Susan Prior), Misha styles himself as a ladies’ man. Before he finishes, he’s made a play for the three other women gathered for this vodka-enhanced festivity. (Upton’s resolution differs considerably from Chekhov’s ending, which involves a speeding, industrial-age train.)

Misha’s targets include Sophia (Jacqueline Mackenzie), who is married to ineffectual Sergei (Chris Ryan), and nubile Maria (Anna Bamford). But the compulsive philanderer’s real interest is Anna. Who can blame him when Blanchett — blonde hair flowing, picking skirts up high to reveal black underwear — displays her stage skills so abundantly? Blanchett has given a wide spectrum of performances during her career (two Oscars-worth), but never with such abandon. Just as pointedly, Roxburgh puts Misha’s prowess out there with a performance so muscular that whenever he’s, uh, present, it’s hard to focus on anyone else.

Director John Crowley does all he can to make certain in this four-act, one-intermission work, that the explosive nature of Upton’s version materializes. At no time is this more true than when Anna’s party turns orgiastic. Swiveling her shoulders seductively, kicking up her heels, Blanchett is something to see.

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Whether Chekhov would recognize all this is debatable or perhaps beside the point. Certainly audiences will cotton to such over-the-top theatricality. And Crowley, Upton and the whole cast seem aligned with Chekhov’s interest in characters, old or young, at the crossroads of a dilemma.

Here, it’s a dilemma shared by Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Alexei (Martin Jacobs), Yegor (David Downer), Kirill (Eamon Farren), Ivan (Marshall Napier), young student Dimitri (Brandon McClelland), and the angry, raring-for-a-fight Osip (Andrew Buchanan). These cast members play the play with appropriate nervous verve, making the production an impressive ensemble piece. (Blanchett and Roxburgh, though billed above the title, don’t take separate bows.)

Where Upton does remain strictly true to Chekhov is thematically: Amid a backdrop of societal unrest, a smalltime Lothario compulsively acts on misdirected impulses and hastens his undoing. To that end, Roxburgh does a great job of initially showing Misha as a mesmerizing force and then as a terminally confused victim.

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While Crowley, as noted, keeps the dramatics hot and heavy, it lets up during Act 3. During this part, scenes between and among characters feel the most Chekhov-like. Misha is the central figure by this point, plying his womanizing wiles repeatedly as others arrive frenetically and depart in agitated frames of mind. For some reason, Crowley uses stage-variety mist flowing through the entire act. The effect is to suggest that the comings-and-goings aren’t so much happening as unspooling in a dream. It’s a very curious choice.

For Act 1, Alice Babidge designs her set to resemble a modern version of a Russian dacha; she dresses the actors to fit comfortably on its terrace. Act 2 shows an interior dining room, and Act 4 shows what awaits inside, beyond the Act 1 terrace. It’s all nicely done, as are Nick Schlieper’s lights and Stefan Gregory’s sound.