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.
You need no special affection for country/rockabilly to be seduced by this rollicking shindig of a tall tale. It happens almost without one’s awareness. Director Alex Timbers’s inspired revival of the 1975 Mississippi whopper is so high spirited, so full of infectious numbers, inventive sight-gags, and artfully exaggerated performances, you’d have to have sold your sense of humor to the devil to remain untouched. “Once upon a time, there was a fairytale kingdom…” Yeehaw!
Upright citizen Jamie Lockhart, (heartthrob Steven Pasquale of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Bridges of Madison County) comes across Little Harp (Andrew Durand, a pitch perfect scalawag) robbing rich plantation owner Clement Musgrove (a genial Lance Roberts) under the watchful direction of his brother, Big Harp (Evan Harrington), whose live severed head he carts around in a trunk. Got all that? Two heads are better than one… When Jamie sends Little Harp packing, the victim tries to give him gold, but is refused despite Musgrove’s assurance there’s a lot more where that came from.
The gregarious Musgrove invites Jamie to meet his second wife Salome (Leslie Kritzer- imagine Carol Burnett on steroids playing a nymphomaniac, wicked stepmother) and beautiful, supposedly docile daughter Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly with a pithier-than ingénue voice and spunky presence). Every boastful reference to wealth is greeted with more than usual interest. Jamie, it seems, his face masked in berry juice, moonlights as The Bandit of the Woods.
Salome hires the light-brained, bumbling Goat (a wonderfully sweet and funny Greg Hindreth) to kill her stepdaughter. “I will slap your butt into your shoulder blades if you come back without…” The Bandit encounters a restless, bored Rosamund in the forest and steals her clothes, sending her home naked, frustrated, untouched. She sneaks out that night to find her romantic outlaw. Comes a boy, he walks so steady/comes a girl, she seems so ready…When Jamie arrives for dinner, Rosamund makes herself awful in order to discourage him.
Steven Pasquale, Ahna O’Reilly
The Bandit plans to marry Musgrove’s ugly daughter and keep the woman who’s come to him-assuming she plays a bit hard to get and doesn’t do too much cleaning. Rosamund, rejecting her father’s upright choice, pines for a real relationship with the stranger, but who is he? Goat pursues his assignment in order to secure a promised suckling pig. Salome has the hots for Jamie, but the Bandit will do. Little Harp wants a woman and there seems to be one available for bartering. Musgrove will give anything and go anywhere to secure his daughter’s happiness.
Evan Harrington, Steven Pasquale, Leslie Kritzer, Lance Roberts, Nadia Quinn
Having watched Director Alex Timbers ply his imagination in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, one expects the unconventional as well as the grounded. Salome likes to behead pigs and repeatedly falls on her face with a loud calump! When Rosamund and The Bandit go deep in the forest, “You comin’ with me? I don’t like to be followed,” they fluidly climb over, under, through, and between obstacles presented by the unobtrusive cast. Goat is not so successful, branches seem to come out to meet him. Pace is lively. Even filled with people, staging never appears sloppy.
Country western music is, for the most part, rowdy and fun; one ballad haunts. Musicians are very fine.
Steven Pasquale, Ahna O’Reilly
Pasquale is a born swashbuckler (by any name). His muscular form and resonant vocals embody the perfect hero. That the actor can also evoke humor – here from his character’s habits, chauvinism, and ego, makes him doubly entertaining.
Nadia Quinn who briefly plays Goat’s Mother deserves a call-out for her very cool personification of an ornery Raven.
The play is based on a 1942 Eudora Welty novella which transplanted a Brothers Grimm story to the Nachez Trace, (a forest trail from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee), embracing the bravado of American fables. Alfred Uhry’s book and lyrics manage to do this without fully eschewing romantic visions of good and evil. His knee-slapping directness would, however, appall fairies.
Choreographer Connor Gallagher presents dance that do-se-does with synchronized movement, utilizing the small stage with buoyancy and skill.
Above our heads, rough wood support beams, diagonal cabin walls, a taxidermy deer head and an enormous wild turkey hang beside mason jars holding candles. (Jake DeGroot Jeff Croiter, who later give us an unorthodox starry sky.) When the “curtain” parts, Donyale Werle’s inventive Set looks as if artist Joseph Cornell got drunk on moonshine and haphazardly decorated The Grand Ole Opry. Terrific.
Emily Rebholz’s Costumes mix western sagas with a bit of tease, and a smidgen of whimsy. Darron L. West/Charles Coes’ s Sound Design not only delivers the textured music of a five piece bluegrass band (and vocals), but engineers a terrific series of evocative sound effects.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Greg Hildreth, Steven Pasquale, Leslie Kritzer and the Company
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
The Robber Bridegroom
Book & Lyrics by Alfred Uhry
Music by Robert Waldman
Based on the novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Alex Timbers
The Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street