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Margo Channing

The Present – Combustible Relationships


Anton Chekhov’s The Present, written when he was 18, didn’t see the light until twenty years after his death. Uncut, this first dramatic effort might’ve run five hours. The youthfully excessive play has also been respectively adapted by Michael Frayn and David Hare. Andrew Upton’s version sets the scenario not in the late 1800s but rather the 1990s when political reactions seem out of whack. Costume, idiom, and hard rock music (the Clash) orient us. The piece still needs editing, but its core is whizz-bang theater and acting is a treat.

On Anna’s (Cate Blanchett) 40th birthday, the attractive widow gathers friends and family at a country dacha (house) to which she hasn’t been in the decade since her much older husband, the General, died. While the deceased is called “an awful fucking tyrant,” Anna was very much in love.

The Present

Chris Ryan, Richard Roxburgh, Susan Prior, Marshall Napier, Martin Jacobs-on bench, Cate Blanchett, taking photo Toby Schmitz

Today, she’s palpably unsettled – inattentive to a chess game, flitting from chair to chair,  smoking (why saddle many in the cast with this?), setting up expectation long before anything happens. Though the air smells of storm, one doesn’t expect the literally explosive, eye-popping Act II that makes Margo Channing’s outburst from  All About Eve seem like mere tantrum.

Gathered are: naïve 38 year-old stepson Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his new wife, idealistic doctor Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), childhood friend Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) and his much younger manbait girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford), their ex-tutor, self denigrating womanizer Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh), his long suffering, yet loving wife Sasha (Susan Prior), and Nikolai and Sasha’s amiably drunk father, Ivan (Marshall Napier), neighbor and friend of the General.

Two rich, businessmen suitors – Yegor (David Downer) with pompous son Dimitri (Brandon McClelland) and Alexi (Martin Jacobs) plus his punk DJ son Kirill (Eamon Farren) – are also present. Anna, we’re told much later, is playing the men off against one another in an attempt to rescue herself from abject poverty with a second marriage. (This is not apparent.) Oh, and a security man named Osip (Andrew Buchanan) who’s a convenient device.

The Present

Toby Schmitz, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan

Most of our players are suffering from Chekhov’s signature, existential distress. All are poorly paired. “Everybody says they’re in love, but who can really lay claim to it. Marriage after I fell in love, is one long renovation.” (Mikhail) Many yearn to be with someone else at the table. Some have been. Others make that happen during a night of clandestine, inebriated bed hopping. Advice is asked of the wrong people. Marriages and relationships are both wrenched apart abandoned with a shrug. One and one-half new liaisons are formed. There’s a detonator, a gun, and fireworks.

The Present

Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan

Except for the surplus of Acts I and III, both of which could be successfully cut, Andrew Upton’s literate interpretation is intriguing and often crackling. Contemporary humor is ably injected. Characters are illuminated.

In her Broadway debut, Cate Blanchett is a joy to watch, though the dragging first act could make anyone appear aimless. Distracted or seething, she’s possessed by Anna’s at first repressed turmoil. The actress is never less than present. Without the need to telegraph, we see things flicker across her face and inform gestures. Blanchett’s rip roaring Valkyrie turn is one of the most memorable I’ve seen.

A well matched Richard Roxburgh inhabits Mikhail as restless husband, lusty predator and agonized swain. Magnetic appeal to women is easily credible. Combustive passion seems as organic as irresponsibility and self flagellation. The character is layered, yet cut from whole cloth. A virtuoso performance.

The Present

Cate Blanchett, Richard Boxburgh

The rest of the company is excellent. Standouts are Chris Ryan (Sergei) in a  physically nerve-wracked portrayal, Eamon Farren’s sublimely cocky Kirill, and Marshall Napier’s rummy Ivan.

Most of Director John Crowley’s work is appealingly naturalistic. To move that many people around with believability and variation is a sizeable task. The show stopping party scene’s a bacchanalian marvel. Small moments, like Anna’s sitting with her feet in Sergei’s lap, pumping them to elicit a foot rub; her handling of guns; both Ivan and Mikhail’s realistic drunk scenes;  Sasha’s forgiveness speech, … captivate.

There are also omissions. Anna doesn’t even acknowledge the gift of a gold bracelet from a suitor she’s trying to win, for example. And a blatantly fake fight between Mikhail and Osip which draws orange blood. (Thomas Schall, US Fight Director)

Alice Babidge’s Costumes are mostly right on, though Anna’s dress is patently unflattering. The designer’s Sets are a bit too minimal, 20th century for my taste. Stefan Gregory (Sound Design) and Nick Schlieper (Lighting Design) skillfully add unexpected dimension.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Opening: Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie, Anna Bamford,   Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs, Cate Blanchett

The Sydney Theatre Production of
The Present
After Anton Chekhov’s Platonov
By Andrew Upton
Directed by John Crowley
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street