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Brian H. Scott

Chess Match No. 5


I do not want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket or that it’s a president or that it’s in love with another sound, I just want it to be a sound.  John Cage

Chess Match No. 5 should, by all accounts, be boring. It is, after all, an entire play comprised of two people playing a game of chess and discussing their perception of the reality of music. But it is definitely not boring.

The SITI Company has created a work based on the public conversations of John Page as arranged by Jocelyn Clarke. Born in 1912, the noted and controversial composer, writer, artist and philosopher, was among the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde and is often considered one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. Taking the words of John Cage, the company has combined writing, direction, acting and the creativity of an entire ensemble to develop what can only be called a remarkable production.


Without question, the philosophy and techniques of the SITI Company are a large part of the successful outcome. SITI, founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, evolved out of two very different systems, Suzuki and Viewpoints. The mission of Suzuki is to restore the actor’s innate expressive abilities through focus on physical movement drawn from Japanese and Greek theater, ballet and martial arts. Viewpoints was developed in 1970 by choreographer Mary Overlie as a method of movement improvisation. The six basic principles of Viewpoints, later adapted for stage by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, include Space, the physical environment and relationship of objects; Shape, the contour of bodies related to space; Time, tempo, duration, reaction and repetition; Emotion, Movement and Story.

The procedures of the SITI Company serve the words of Cage well and result not in a structure that restricts, but rather in one that provides unlimited freedom. Once the boundaries of preconceived concepts are broken, choice is without limit.

Cage’s overriding philosophy, embodied in all of his works, is that music exists solely and simply for its own sake. One example, often discussed and passionately debated, is the three movement composition “4’33” which is performed in four minutes and 33 seconds. Before beginning, the musicians are requested to put down their instruments. What remains is the ambient sound, the music, of the surrounding environment. In a 1957 lecture Cage described music as “…an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”


Chess Match No.5 was conceived and directed by Anne Bogart, co-director of the SITI Company. She has directed it with careful attention to each moment, each nuance, and each in relationship to the whole.

The performances of the production’s two actors, Will Bond as John Cage and Ellen Lauren as his long-time friend and intellectual equal, are extraordinary. They have mastered incredibly challenging roles, totally embodying their characters and never allowing the attention of the audience to waver.  They also manage to transition smoothly from the intellectual repartee to jokes that are delightful in their contrivance and dances that come out of nowhere (and are very well performed).

In a world in which falsely perceived reality and inflexible and biased opinions are often the norm, anything which opens the mind and provides a stimulus for thought is to be lauded, and when it provides entertainment as well, it is something not to be missed.  Go see Chess Match No. 5.  You will enjoy it and you will not forget it.

Photos by Maria Baranova

Chess Match No. 5
Created by the SITI Company and Presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company
Choreography, Barney O’Hanlon; Scenic and Costume Design, James Schuette; Lighting Design, Brian H. Scott; Sound Design, Darron L. West
June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue)
Through April 2nd Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Memory Rings – An Eco Fable


Entering the theater, one is intrigued by three “formations” onstage: four white-faced, three-foot marionettes in black gowns with red patches at the hem, their strings rising up into the wings; a group of ropes, also extending up beyond the eye, ending in wood blocks held down by sandbags; and a pile of what turns out to be irregular sections of bark, behind which we see a deer’s head and evergreens. The marionettes, each of which looks like one of the primary actors, will shortly disappear until the end. Forest animals (including the deer) and birds then affix bark to the ropes at various levels forming “the so-called Methuselah Tree, a California bristlecone that is almost 5000 years old.”


According to the program, this piece is part two in a trilogy of original works addressing environmental concerns. We see Birds, a Rabbit, Boar, Fox, Wolf, and Deer celebrate nature (the tree) as well as fighting to survive primordial ooze, violent storms, and flooding. Animals become human when they remove their heads, but rarely relate. Marionettes depicting people come and go deftly manipulated by actors costumed as evergreens walking on wood blocks so they’re sufficiently tall.

We watch Little Red Riding Hood get eaten and saved by a hunter (he cuts open the animal’s stomach, remember?) to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf?” and hear human workers whistling “Hi Ho” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Connection to the environment? The toppling of redwoods (on screen) is more apt as are Gertrude Stein-type, repeated phrases. Those from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra arrive a complete puzzle. Weatherwise, things just keep getting worse until every living creature is trying to endure against the odds. (Nobody thinks of climbing the tree?) Choreography is often engaging, but most of eighty minutes is spent in obscurity.


Memory Rings is, however, visually appealing. Design is credited to Jessica Grindstaff who, one presumes, created the wonderful tree and overall graphic theme of tree rings (signifying age).

Puppet Design (Erik Sanko) is striking, Lighting (Brian H. Scott) meticulous, Projection Design (Keith Skretch) evocative (especially love the moon, ooze, and a sky filled with birds.)

I found the animal heads terrific but their costumes jarringly busy (Henrik Vibskov).

Photos by Ed Lefkowicz

2016 BAM Next Wave Festival presents
Memory Rings
Phantom Limb Company
Conceived by Jessica Grindstaff and Eric Sanko
Direction by Jessica Grindstaff
Choreography by Ryan Heffington
BAM Harvey Theater
November 20, 2016
BAM Next Wave Festival Calendar