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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), isn't the only one to raise his glass to wish Anna a happy 40th birthday. Anna's own toast exuberantly declares "I can think of no better place to gather together and raise a glass to life. To raise a glass, in memory of the past. . . also to o embrace the future. Bring it on. Bring it on I say."
And so vodka flows. Chekhov's favorite foreshadowing prop, a gun, doesn't take long to show up. In fact the gun (also a rifle), actually gets fired several times with various results. It's a sure thing that the regularly filled and emptied glasses will fuel arguments and confrontations between the generation spanning guests, all of whom are somehow connected.
When the never published or produced sprawling text, probably written by Chekhov when he was a medical student, was discovered among his papers years after his death, it was called Play Without a Title. Given Chekhov's reputation as a playwright, unrivalled by any playwright except Shakespeare, there's been no shortage of prestigious scribes to adapt and re-title it. That includes Michael Frayn and David Hare.
The Present, the title Andrew Upton has chosen for his revamped version, refers to his fast forwarding Chekhov's 19th Century time frame to a contemporary setting: specifically, the post perestroika (restructuring) and glassnost (openness) with the future Anna is eager to "bring on" riddled with uncertainties.
The mid-90s "present" in which Upton has set his adaptation makes for an intriguing way to see a major talent in embryo. It also allowed Upton to give free reign to his own sensibility and way with fresh, up-to-date dialogue.
A birthday celebration at a country estate short of resources to insure its future is pure Chekhov. So is the overarching sense of uneasy tension about how the get-together will end. The unfolding and frequently explosive events are infused with colloquial interchanges. Upton's use of modern terminology can even be doubly purposeful; for example, he uses the once taboo "F" word as a means for Anna to make fun of men who are more talk than action when it comes to sex.
While The Present is an apt title, The Malcontents would be a suitable alternative to showcase the way Upton and director John Crowley have staged their production as a true ensemble drama. Though Mikhail remains the pivotal character, the entire cast represents a microcosm of the regrets and tensions of moving forward to a hoped for but not necessarily better future.
Though Mikhail is The Present's chief and most vocal malcontent, Anna is center stage with him as his big love, so there's no question that Cate Blanchett's and Richard Roxburgh's names belong above the program's title. Blanchett is of course the really big ticket selling draw. But though she's appeared in prestigious Off-Broadway plays, she is making her Broadway debut here along with Roxburgh and the rest of the Sydney Theater ensemble. What we thus have is a big star vehicle which happens to be made more starry courtesy of a stellar ensemble.
Blanchett and Roxburgh are electrifying. That applies to whether they're on stage separately or together, speaking or expressing themselves non-verbally.
You won't soon forget Blanchett's displaying boredom over one discussion by removing her bra and tossing it to the floor. . . her determinedly getting into the party spirit with an exuberant dance on top of the dinner table . . . or the way she does a quick turn mimicking a stooped old lady to punctuate her officially turning 40.
Roxburgh too taps into the nuances of the once promising writer who ended up as a self-deprecating and yet grandiose schoolmaster. As one of the guests puts it, he is "a man behind a mask, muddled with some misplaced sense of his own importance" . . .which probably accounts for his addictive need to prove himself irresistible to every woman. The married Mikhail's womanizing is not surprising considering that he views marriage as a quickly downhill headed proposition that ends up being "one long renovation."
To get back to this being an ensemble production. . . The party guests the actors are assigned to portray are all different. Though not all eleven of them are equally interesting, all are linked in that they've reached a place in their lives from which to move forward into a changing world. This common challenge about the next move is symbolized by the first act's chess game between Anna and Nikolai (Toby Schmitz).
Nikolai (the first of Chekhov's many doctor characters) is one of the two men besides Mikhail who Anna came to love in different ways when she became the trophy wife of the man known as the General. Schmitz makes it clear that Nikolai's passion for food masks his inability to commit to a real life of his own. Rounding out best friends since youth trio is Anna's simple, eager to embrace love and life stepson Sergei (Chris Ryan).
The Present has a second doctor, the neurotic do-gooder Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie). Unsurprisingly, her dedication to do-good work and rekindled passion for Mikhail does not bode well for her recent marriage to Sergei.
Maria (Anna Bamford), Nikolai's much younger girl friend is another of the women Mikhail wants to kiss and fuck. Their interactions, as well as a scene between her and Anna are among the play's conversational highlights.
Two actors who manage to make a rather implausible minor plot twist amusing are Susan Prior as Mikhail's boring, gone to fat wife Sasha and the rather sinister appearing former KGB operative Osip (Andrew Buchanan).
To add to the pleasures of The Present, Upton and Director John Crowley have brought out Chekhov's intention to have his plays viewed as farces by playing up the humorous aspects of these characters' behavior as they try to deal with their past, present and future situations. Therefore, the regrets plus minor and major tragic missteps notwithstanding, there are more laughs here than in Chekhov's more mature plays.
Even when the plot moves closer to tragedy than farce, Mr. Upton doesn't let his characters abandon humor — when Nikolai learns that his girl friend was not having sex with his old pal Mikhail by herself, taking a shower, he wryly comments "wash that man right out of your hair."
The production values are simple but serve the shifting scenes. Alice Babidge (who ably double tasks as costume designer) has created a distinctive look for each of the four acts. The first act plays out in the patio at the rear of the summer house known as The Folly. The second act moves inside for dinner and animated table talk fueled by more vodka. The post intermission pre-dawn scene is more abstract with Nick Schlieper's foggy lighting creating an ethereal aura that makes Mikhail seem like a ghostly presence as other characters emerge one by one from the mist. Between acts scenery changes are effectively made behind the dropped leaf-strewn curtain and enlivened by composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory.
Clever adapter that he is, Mr. Upton has not elevated this early work to match Chekhov's later master works. What he has done, however, is to wrestle the unwieldy text (the original would require five or six hours of stage time) to a well-paced three hours to be savored for the fine performances and interesting hints of themes and better structured plays to come.
Note: For Lizzie Loveridge's review of the 2001 London production of David Hare's adaptation go here . For Curtainup's Chekhov backgrounder, go here .
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Playwright: Andrew Upton after Anton Chekhov's Platonov
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Anna), Richard Roxburgh (Mikhail), Andrew Buchanan (Osip), Anna Bamford (Maria), David Downer (Yegor), Eamon Farren (Kirill), Martin Jacobs (Alexi), Brandon McClelland (Dimitri),Jacqueline McKenzie (Sophia),Marshall Napier (Ivan),Susan Prio (Sasha), Chris Ryan (Sergei) (Sergei, Toby Schmitz (Nikolai)
Set and Costume Design:Alice Babidge
Lighting Design:Nick Schlieper
Composer and Sound Design:Stefan Gregory
Stage Manager: Kristen Harris Running Time: 2 hours and 55 minutrd including 1 intermission between 2nd and 3rd of 4 ats
Barrymore Theater 243 W. 47thSt.
From 12/17/16; opening 1/08/17; closing 3/19/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 5th press preview
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