Fun and Games
An MIT Musical Theatre Guild production
Directed by James Kirtley
Starring Teresa Raine, Bruce Applegate, Ryan Caveney, Jesse Cox ’03, Steve Niemczyk G, Dan Katz ’03, Seth Bisen-Hersh ’01, Niyati Gandhi ’02, and David Zych ’00
Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Based on the book by Richard Nelson
Performed at La Sala de Puerto Rico February 3-6
The Musical Theatre Guild’s latest production, Chess, is, in a word, about games. Mind games. War games. Political games. And, of course, board games.
Centering around a chess tournament between a player from the United States and one from the Soviet Union, Chess attempts to use the game as a metaphor for personal and political struggles that are occurring simultaneously. Chess turns these struggles into a discouraging view of the world: most of them are the result of the characters’ own selfishness and false hopes. These negative traits then factor into the manipulations that are part of playing the various games. The plot, however, suffers as a result of being so overextended -- trying to incorporate all the different real and metaphorical games.
While the dramatic mood and even the plot are unsatisfying at times, the individual characters did have their moments. It is commendable that the characters could overcome such difficult material to maintain flashes of emotional believability. While the director’s notes describe the characters as “generally unlikable,” most of the characters were only flawed -- severely flawed, perhaps -- but still a step up from “generally unlikable.”
The most consistent element of the play is the role of Florence (played by Teresa Raine). Whereas the first half of the play is in Bangkok and focuses on the American Freddie (Bruce Applegate) and the second half is in Hungary, focused on the Soviet Anatoly (Ryan Caveney), Florence is a constant between the two places and people. The role is important because Raine brings a glimmer of humanity to the sometimes-tiresome profusion of games and players. Similarly, Ryan Caveney focuses on the humanity of his character as he attempts to ignore his role in the games that are being played.
In the bleakness of most of the play, humor was another element that stood out. The neutral figure, the Arbiter (Seth Bisen-Hersh), for example, gets so absorbed in his role as mediator between the two opposing elements that he (loudly, explicitly, and hence, amusingly) demands respect from the players and their hangers-on.
The part of the musical that is supposed to be the most outstanding (indeed, worth producing at all) is the music. Many of the best musical numbers appeared in the second act when the characters had deepened sufficiently enough to provide an emotional background to the songs. The duets between Caveney and Raine, and between Niyati Gandhi, who played Svetlana, and Raine benefited particularly from this background. However, the sound quality in La Sala de Puerto Rico was less than fantastic. For one, the orchestra was kept behind the stage and curtains. For another, the actors without powerful voices were difficult to hear.
For the most part, the set design just entailed a white background and occasionally some tables and chairs. Again, this could have been improved a great deal. The costumes were essentially drab black and khaki suits (with the occasional Don Johnson influence in the suits of the agent Walter, played by Steve Niemczyk G). The lighting, continuing on the theme of minimalism, was primarily (and symbolically) in blue and red. While there were only four weeks to put the entire play together, any attention to detail when the plot and other factors are lacking can make a big difference.
However, one scene in which the minimalism actually did work was during the “One Night in Bangkok” number (a song that was popularized by Murray Head), which featured Freddie, the American, in the seedy nightlife of Bangkok. Bathing the stage in dim red lights with small white lights, the scene was in stark contrast with the rest of the play. Not only were the costumes and set colorful, but the song was one of the ensemble’s strongest combined efforts.
The MIT Musical Theatre Guild’s production of Chess was certainly not without its flaws. The music was good, but the quality could have been improved. However, there were moments in which the characters surpassed their own negative characteristics to show some tiny truth about humanity. In total, the elements of the play that worked the best were those that extended beyond the bleakness of the exterior appearance and the play’s downbeat messages about games and politics.