Masquerade Prevails as “Chess” Grandmaster


In the opening scene of Chess, lyricist Tim Rice ponders, %26#8220;Each game of chess means there%26#8217;s one less variation left to be played.%26#8221; The Masquerade Theatre, however, has proved yet again that variation is the name of the game (pardon the ABBA pun) when it comes to this musical. It%26#8217;s the third time the company has performed this cult favorite by Rice and Benny Andersson and Bj%26#246;rn Ulvaeus (the Bs in the aforementioned ABBA), but director Phillip K. Duggins and his talented cast have breathed new life into the Cold War competition.%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
%26#8220;It%26#8217;s a more stylized production,%26#8221; Duggins says of the show currently running at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts%26#8217; Zilkha Hall (through October 9, 2010). %26#8220;We also went with a very specific color palate. All the costumes and sets are red, white, blue, black, gold and silver.%26#8221; The set is minimalist, with scattered cubes and columns supporting illuminated red squares that suggest both a chessboard in disarray and the intrusion of the media into the proceedings %26#8212; representatives of which frequent the stage to pry sound bites from the protagonists. Is there also an implied pun in this design? Red Square certainly figures into the proceedings, as Anatoly is haunted by the KGB and the specter of the Soviet Union.%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
Some European revivals of Chess have shifted the action back to the %26#8216;70s, but in keeping with the Broadway-revision script, Duggins is happy with the Gorbachev era. %26#8220;The show works best in the 1980s,%26#8221; he says. %26#8220;That was the Cold War era, and it just feels right in that decade. It is also fun to see costumes and hairstyles from that period.%26#8221; Of course, as the years pass, the audience becomes less and less familiar with the %26#8220;U.S. versus U.S.S.R.%26#8221; tensions. %26#8220;It is a challenge with younger audiences,%26#8221; Duggins concedes. %26#8220;Most are aware of our past history but did not live through it. So it is a learning tool. The show is good in that it gives direct lines that help the younger audience understand the time and the era.%26#8221;%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
As for the characters, chess rivals Freddie Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky have traditionally been linked to real-life grandmasters Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, with Freddie sometimes associated with tennis star John McEnroe as well. (In the original London script, Freddie goes so far as to brag, %26#8220;I%26#8217;m like that tennis player, what%26#8217;s his name?%26#8221;) Whereas modern pop culture is rife with examples of celebrity and paparazzi interplay, Duggins is more circumspect in his approach to the characters. %26#8220;I don%26#8217;t really have any specific inspirations for this production,%26#8221; he says. %26#8220;Characters are never black and white but many shades of gray. I remind my actors of this always. What is really great about this production is that there are not any real villains. Just a lot of interesting people caught up in the game of chess and the Cold War.%26#8221;%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
These people include chessboard rivals Anatoly (Luther Chakurian) and%26nbsp; Freddy (Brad Scarborough); Florence Vassy (Rebekah Dahl), love interest to the Russian and second to the American; Svetlana (Kristina Sullivan), Anatoly%26#8217;s estranged wife; their handlers, KGB man Molokov (Luke Wrobel) and Walter Anderson (Evan Tessier), ostensibly Freddy%26#8217;s manager but obviously a CIA operative; and the Arbiter (Allison Sumrall), a commanding role usually portrayed by a man. %26#8220;I think playing the Arbiter as a woman adds a unique touch to the show,%26#8221; Duggins says. %26#8220;Plus, the women of the %26#8216;80s were so strong and coming of age. I wanted to reflect that even more in the production.%26#8221;%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
Many of the performers are very familiar with the material, having appeared in Masquerade%26#8217;s previous productions of Chess. Sumrall, for example, played lovelorn Svetlana in Masquerade%26#8217;s first cast in 2000. And Chakurian has won Florence%26#8217;s heart as Anatoly in all three productions now. %26#8220;Of course, the actors have also grown so much over the years, and the depth of the performances is nothing short of commanding,%26#8221; Duggins says. Of Chakurian%26#8217;s current interpretation of Anatoly, he adds, %26#8220;I don%26#8217;t know that he is approaching the role differently, but obviously being older makes him wiser and gives him more life experiences to draw from. Of course, just being a more seasoned actor %26#8230; you can expect an even stronger performance from him.%26#8221;%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
As for the characters%26#8230; Charles Dickens once wrote, %26#8220;Love that has a game of chess in it can checkmate any man and solve the problem of life.%26#8221; The leads in this musical might take exception to this view, however, and find more empathy with author Irving Chernev, who proclaimed that %26#8220;there is no room for gallantry in chess%26#8221; or even with H.G. Wells, who once referred to the game as %26#8220;a curse upon a man. There is no happiness in chess.%26#8221; Chakurian%26#8217;s Anatoly certainly embodies the latter in the first and final scenes, as he battles outside forces determined to turn his passion for chess (and for Florence) into international politics. Chakurian wears the exhaustion on his face, making his brief respite with Florence all the more poignant. As Florence, Dahl reveals all in the opening scene when she gazes with unabashed adoration at Anatoly, then with betrayed pain at Freddie. As Trumper, Scarborough balances the abusive ego and vulnerability of his scarred character, with a voice that soars through the rock-opera high notes. The entire cast handles the score with authority and passion, from Chakurian%26#8217;s wistful/driving %26#8220;Where I Want to Be%26#8221; and Dahl%26#8217;s frustrated %26#8220;Someone Else%26#8217;s Story%26#8221; (a ballad heralded by Tim Rice as %26#8220;the greatest benefit of the short-lived Broadway production of 1988%26#8221; in the foreword to the British libretto) in the first act to Sumrall%26#8217;s defiant %26#8220;Arbiter%26#8217;s Song,%26#8221; Scarborough%26#8217;s soul-revealing %26#8220;Pity the Child%26#8221; and Sullivan%26#8217;s soul-wrenching duet with Dahl, %26#8220;I Know Him So Well,%26#8221; in the second. Another highlight of Act II is Wrobel and Tessler%26#8217;s witty, well-sung %26#8220;Let%26#8217;s Work Together%26#8221; as the agents plot %26#8220;to mix our laissez with our savoir faires%26#8221; for their nations%26#8217; mutual good %26#8212; if not for the lead characters%26#8217;.%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
Anyone who watched the recent PBS concert of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall starring Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel may be startled by changes not only in the music but in the plot of Masquerade%26#8217;s production. This is part of the phenomenon of Chess: The PBS concert evolved from the concept album and the original West End production, whereas American companies can only perform the 1988 Broadway version. After the first weekend of performances, Duggins had not noticed any audience confusion, although %26#8220;the really hardcore Chess fans called in advance to find out which version we were producing.%26#8221; Is there any hope that American fans might someday see productions based on the British script, now that PBS has given it such broad U.S. exposure? %26#8220;I would love for the British version to become available,%26#8221; Duggins says. %26#8220;I have not heard anything to date. But rest assured, if it does, The Masquerade Theatre will definitely produce that version.%26#8221;%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
For tickets to the final weekend of Chess, visit masqueradetheatre.com or call the Hobby Center Box Office at 713.315.2525. Tickets start at $30.
%26nbsp;
Image: Luther Chakurian as Anatoly, Rebekah Dahl as Florence and Brad Scarborough as Freddie in The Masquerade Theatre's 2010 production of Chess. Photo courtesy of The Masquerade Theatre.%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;
%26nbsp;

Comments are closed.

Sign up for the DADA Newsletter