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The Sydney Theatre Company Production of "The Present", Adapted from Chekhov, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
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The Sydney Theatre Company Production of "The Present", Adapted from Chekhov, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

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Stuart Thompson, Sydney Theatre Company
et al.
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh

The Sydney Theatre Company Production of

The Present
(Production Website)
After Anton Chekhov's Platonov

By Andrew Upton
Directed by John Crowley

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street

Anna Bamford, Andrew Buchanan, David Downer
Eamon Farren, Martin Jacobs, Brandon McClelland
Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior
Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz

Scenic & Costume Design: Alice Babidge
Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper
Composer and Sound Design: Stefan Gregory
Advertising: Spotco
Assoc. Producer: Kevin Emrick
General Management: Thompson Turner Productions
Toni Marie Davis
Exec. Producers: Rachael Azzopardi / Patrick McIntyre
Production Stage Manager: Kristen Harris
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 10, 2017

Somewhere in the second hour of this three-hour, endless, exhausting play, each character, related or stranger, is looking for intimacy from another, regardless of familiarity or marital status. In fact, the mostly married or engaged (details are elusive) members of Anna's (a remarkably loose Cate Blanchett) 40th birthday celebration are deeply inebriated, deeply in mourning for their lives, deeply vengeful, and deeply longing for lust. Love is a non-existent element in this family affair, as somewhere in the first hour one character had alluded to the family's desire to bond over money, much of which is now lost. Andrew Upton, playwright, has taken a teenage Chekhov's first play, a five-hour treatise unearthed years after Chekhov's death, and reinvented it for four acts and three tedious hours, with thankfully four different sets of scenery by Alice Babidge. Mr. Upton and his wife, Cate Blanchett, are former Co-Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company in Australia, and naturally Ms. Blanchett appears here in the lead role. Once again, a production practice of late, the written background on the play's relationships and history is found in small print in the Playbill, much too late to absorb in advance of Act One. A synopsized, bolder version, inserted into the Playbill, could have explained the various ties between the thirteen Russian characters. Also, Mr. Upton has chosen, through John Crowley, Director, and Ms. Babidge, who is also Costume Designer, to dress most of his Chekhovian characters in tight jeans, casual shirts, sneakers, and modish hair, and they all have Aussie accents with a touch of Russian.

But, if the dialogue had been riveting, one would neither care nor notice. In this case, the first act scene opens at a pre-birthday party, with wicker chairs and modern accessories (the play is set in the 1990's, "post-Perestroika", and monologues and philosophical treatises are overwhelmingly soporific. Nobody, later chatting at intermission, understood the barest of ties between characters, let alone that Anna was a widow of a wealthy General. But, they all knew Anna was Cate Blanchett, and, for a Broadway debut, she certainly projected throughout the house. The second act, set at the actual birthday event, in a sort of country gazebo, a drunken scene with fireworks, guns, and a detonator, more lucidly unpeeled the characters, as loathsome as they fast became. The cast fills out with Anna's stepson, Sergei (Chris Ryan), his wife, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), his friend Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Nikolai's fiancee, Maria (Anna Bamford), Nikolai and Sergei's former tutor, Mikhail Platonov, the last name matching a former version of this originally unnamed play (Richard Roxburgh), Mikhail's wife, Sasha (Susan Prior), and Anna's admirers, Alexei (Martin Jacobs) and Yegor (David Downer). Osip (Andrew Buchanan), Kirill Eamon Farren), and Ivan (Marshall Napier), listed and appearing, added more confusion to the stage. To reiterate, a bold, diagrammatical, family tree insert with a bit of backstory would have been welcome. All thirteen characters arrive and depart with histrionic, verbal, and gestural explosiveness, so, at the end of Act II, an actual, detonated pyrotechnic explosion is a minor event.

The central, leading man is Mikhail, who does his best to elude Sasha, his docile wife, disappearing into women's arms and offstage beds, or at least promising to do so, creating hormonal havoc among those scorned; as they say, "Hell hath no fury like...". Mr. Roxburgh is a musty, muscular, rough-looking man, one whose closeness left his prey swooning. Or so it is in this play. The central, leading woman is Anna, who practically flies through the air, as she stomps and dances on tables like Zorba the Greek, holds bottles of vodka in one hand, a gun in the other, and a cigarette in her teeth. If only they'd been in period clothing within period scenery and not spouting profanities and phrases, like "stuff happens". If only Act III had not been in a room in a cloud, with smoke surrounding an open seating area. It was as if the characters had all died and staged a heavenly reunion, a remake of their lives. If only Act I, with six open doors with total blackness beyond, had been a vehicle for characters to re-appear in 19th century attire, manner, and authentic Russian accents. If only Act IV had included conversational conclusions and insights, rather than a violent interruption to a naturally closing plot. But, Mr. Upton chose to go for mayhem and madness with little cohesion or coherence. John Crowley most likely directed according to Mr. Upton's instruction. I recall Mr. Crowley's more fascinating direction of A Steady Rain in 2009. Ms. Babidge's scenery and costumes, as well, were most likely on the direction of the playwright, a former Co-Artistic Director of the Theatre Company. Lighting and sound were well conceived, but Mr. Gregory's blaring, rock music interludes, played against Ms. Babidge's black-white-modernistic projections, were the metaphors for the production, amorphous and cacophonous.

Please, a producer, wherever you are, bring back an authentic Chekhov play in period manner, set, and costume, soon. Please.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at