Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Cate is Great, but "The Present" is Average

Review: The Present

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in Andrew Upton's The Present.

In her long awaited Broadway debut, Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett proves every bit as formidable and entrancing onstage as she is onscreen. Able to tap into coquettish charm and window rattling fury with equal authority, Blanchett possesses such a magnetic stage presence you can scarcely take your eyes off her, even when she sits silently fuming at a table in the background. Without trying, the actress absolutely dominates any scene she's in while remaining fully in service of both character and story. Unfortunately, the role of Anna Petrovna in Andrew Upton's new work The Present doesn't quite demand or deserve an actress of Blanchett's stature, which undermines Blanchett's Broadway bow despite her undeniable talent.

The play is loosely adapted from Anton Chekhov's Platonov, chronologically the first play written by the celebrated dramatist but not produced until well after his death. The fact that Platonov is rarely performed is the first indication of underlying issues with the material, as is the fact the author himself considered the play unfinished. The basic outline involves Russian widow Anna Petrovna gathering friends and acquaintances at a dilapidated country estate to celebrate her birthday, most notably the sardonic tutor Mikhail Platonov. Over the course of the long weekend various inner demons and repressed romantic feelings come to the fore, ultimately upending everyone's lives. Upton's adaptation, which moves the action forward a century to 1990s Russia, makes a decent attempt at unifying the narrative's disparate threads, but ultimately feels confused and conflicted in both tone and style.

The first act hews most closely to what classic Chekhov, in that it introduces a bevy of well-to-do members of Russian society obsessing over the past and the unerring progression of time. Act II takes a hard left turn into completely unexpected territory involving shotguns and dynamite, making it the play's most memorable but also the most bizarre. This darkly comic act heavily centers on Blanchett's character, showcasing the actress' many gifts and the manic energy provided by the script's comedic impulses; if the whole show maintained the tone and pace of Act II, it would be often insane but also compulsively watchable. Unfortunately, Act III changes tones once again to become a dreamlike succession of two and three character scenes, before the play returns to something more recognizably Chekhovian in the final act (along with paying off the literal Chekhov's gun introduced in the show's opening moments).

As mentioned, Blanchett is superb throughout, although those buying a ticket primarily for her may be disappointed to learn the real protagonist is Richard Roxburgh's Platonov. And while The Present would definitely benefit from featuring Blanchett more prominently, Roxburgh is quite a treat in his own right. His rakish performance perfectly highlights why the other characters find Platonov both intoxicating and infuriating, and yet Roxburgh is also capable of portraying deep anguish and regret. His Platonov emerges as a deeply conflicted man, a passionate soul stymied by his quiet country lifestyle whilst simultaneously drawing great comfort from said lifestyle. The most interesting scenes highlight the complex interplay between Blanchett and Roxburgh, who share excellent chemistry and a high mastery of their craft.

The rest of the cast provides fine support in roles with murkier character arcs than Anna and Platonov, often giving performances far better than what is on the page. Particularly strong are Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz as Platanov's former students Sergei and Nikolai, both on the verge of settling into midlife with partners who may or may not be right for them. And in the pivotal role of Sophia - Sergei's wife and a past lover of Platanov - Jacqueline McKenzie makes such seamless sense of her character's abrupt shifts in affection you almost don't notice how poorly they're integrated into the plot (Sophia's actions seem primarily dictated by story needs, rather than character motivations).

Director John Crowley mostly stays out of the way of his actor's performances, which keeps the staging from feeling unnecessarily flashy but occasionally leaves the action feeling unfocused. Alice Babidge's scenic design isn't particularly impressive, except for how quickly it manages to transition from act to act. Similarly, the costumes (also by Babidge) and lighting (be Nick Schlieper) avoid calling attention to themselves in favor of letting the performances and script do the heavy lifting.

For gifting Broadway with the immense talent that is Cate Blanchett, The Present is to be commended, even if it is an imperfect vehicle for such an accomplished performer. Hopefully Blanchett will find the time in her busy film schedule to return to the New York stage in one of the truly great theatrical roles; she has tackled both A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler in her native Australia, either of which would offer her far more material to work with should she choose to reprise them. Until then, The Present will have to do, even if Blanchett's star presence isn't quite enough to make you forget you're watching an awkwardly formed but well-acted play.


  1. Do the actors in the production use actual Russian accents or not?

    1. They use their natural speaking voices, which means everyone has an Australian accent.

    2. Interesting. Do you think they should have used Russian accents for authenticity?

    3. Honestly, that didn't really bother me. Unless accents are really well done I find them distracting, and most of the themes of the play aren't tied to that specific milieu. For classical theatre, as long as they all sound like they are from the same general place (which this cast did), I'm happy.