Mastering chess, love politics
When it comes to televised sports, it’s typically football and basketball that drum up the most excitement and fan-fueled drama. It’s certainly not chess. Until the game is used to illustrate the strategy behind love and politics—then it becomes the ultimate match.
In the brilliant musical, CHESS, written by Richard Nelson and lyricist Tim Rice, the game is used as a metaphor for romantic rivalries, foreign relations, political strategy and competitive gamesmanship. In the end, we learn just how manipulative all of those face-offs really are.
Theatre Alliance in Winston-Salem took a crack at the rock musical for its eighth production this season—perhaps creating the biggest challenge yet for the non-professional group.
What I found most intriguing about the play was its ability to communicate in song the differences between men and women. The lyrics grasped the inner workings of male and female minds and emotions. After the play, my boyfriend and I had quite an enlightening conversation about the human condition.
The pawns in the drama, which was inspired in part by the Cold War, are an ill-mannered American chess star, an earnest Russian champion, and a Hungarian American female assistant who manages the American former chess champion, but falls for the Russian.
From Bangkok to Budapest the players, lovers, politicians and spies manipulate and are manipulated.
The music, written by rock greats Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, both of ABBA, is lively and catching, with such numbers as “One Night in Bangkok” and “Heaven Help My Heart.”
Theatre Alliance’s performance last Saturday, April 26, was a decent portrayal of the demanding rock musical, however there were a few snags.
The live band, complete with a bass, clarinet, flute, trumpet, drums, guitar and keyboards, did a superb job and had me tapping my legs throughout the performance. At times, though, the music over-powered some of the dialogue.
Another unfortunate obstacle was simply the small stage at Theatre Alliance, which made it difficult for the actors to comfortably perform their choreography. At times there were 15 very focused actors dancing around the tiny stage.
Although I have to hand it to the cast, who successfully avoided any collisions, it was difficult to get lost in a performance that wasn’t quite seamless.
The dancing ensemble was also rigid at times. One of the dancers seemed self-conscious on stage—and since she was the scantily-clad, flirty type I don’t think that was part of her character development. The dancer’s “sexy” routine was so stiff and timid that I half expected her to flee from stage fright.
On a positive note, other members of the ensemble, like Caroline Kapo and John C. Wilson lifted up the performance with their swift moves and confidence. The two danced well together and even executed a few ballet moves, like the fish dive.
When she wasn’t adding a touch of grace to the stage, Kapo brought a self-assured sexiness that helped boost the stage with subtle confidence and draw the audience back into the performance.
Other stars of the stage were Sylvester Allen, who pulled off the annoyingly cocky but smooth American star, and Troy Hurst, who as the Russian truly captivated the audience. Both had a strong presence that pulled me into the performance.
I actually didn’t feel very invested in the musical’s first few minutes until Hurst took the stage with his first song and beautiful commanding voice.
A few of the cast actually had quite an impressive vocal range, although unfortunately there were also a few who weren’t able to truly own their songs. At times the keys felt uncontrolled.
The scenic designer, Thad Templeton, and lighting designers Suzanne Vaughan and Tyler Carlson created other highlights in the production. Together they created an ambiance that actually fused a chessboard with the glamour of rock and famous athletes—no easy feat.
The stage was decorated wing to wing in black and white squares across the floor and walls with floating chess pieces above. Newsreels of the chess winners and other videos were projected onto a screen made of white chessboard pieces.
The effect helped portray the hype around the chess masters and made the match itself much more interesting and creative.
Even though Theatre Alliance’s performance had a few rough edges, it was quite an enjoyable piece and I have to applaud their efforts for attempting such a difficult work. The writing alone is so insightful it would be a shame not to check it out. !
CHESS runs at Theatre Alliance, 1 047 Northwest Blvd., Winston-Salem, Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $16. For tickets and more information visit www.wstheatrealliance.org or call 723-7777.