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"Stories like ours have happy endings," insist the characters from Chess, and while this musical is certainly not a happy story, the AAA Players delivered an enthusiastic audience a happy conclusion to their Chess performances last Saturday.
Chess is a thought-provoking story of two world-class chess players--Anatoly, a Russian, and Freddie, an American--competing against the backdrop of Cold War tension and paranoia. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba, the songs were quirky and delightful. The play opens in Budapest in 1956 with a man is teaching his young daughter Florence to play chess. Soldiers rush in and take Florence away, and the scene shifts to the present, where arrogant, self-centered Freddie (Michael Kim '97) and a quieter and more restrained Anatoly (Janson Wu '00) are preparing for a chess tournament in Bangkok. A grown-up Florence (LeeAnn Tzeng '95-'96) appears as Freddie's trainer, but serious complications arise as Florence and Anatoly fall in love. As the tournament ends, Anatoly defects to the American side and travels with Florence to Budapest for another tournament against Freddie.
Here Florence's story takes center stage as she wrestles with her past while, in the background, Freddie's and Anatoly's agents plot, spy and conspire continuously against each other. In the end, Anatoly consents to return to Russia after hearing of his family's ostracization there and realizing that Florence might be able to find her father if he leaves. Only after Anatoly boards the plane does Florence discover that the man she thought was her father is a phony and that she has lost the man she loves.
But for all its sadness, this is still an engaging play, and the AAA players' interpretation was especially intriguing. Though the script remained unchanged for the most part, the Americans here were Asian-Americans, the Russians became Chinese and Budapest was transplanted to a city in Vietnam to "make Chess contemporary and applicable for us in the '90s," according to the director's note. Two traditional Vietnamese songs--"Ly Ngua O" and "Ly Chieu Chieu"--were beautiful additions to the script. Twice during the play, slides were shown on the back wall of the set. The first set of slides featured professional Asian-American athletes and newspaper articles describing their lack of presence and respect in the media. The second set was a visual narrative of recent democracy protests in China. This use of slide shows during the play was an effective technique, though it should have been incorporated more throughout the play. As it was, they were disruptive but interesting.
The set was well conceived: the whole stage was painted like a warped chessboard, and props and costumes were kept simple. Above the stage, a screen used mainly for lighting effects concealed the rhythm section of the orchestra. During one of Florence's songs, "Nobody's Side," the screen was backlit so that the rhythm section could suddenly be seen through the screen. This, like the slide shows, was startling and sporadic--a great but underutilized effect.
A note in the program explained that the games of chess that Freddie and Anatoly play are reproductions of the actual games that Bobby Fischer played against Byrne and Spassky in 1957 and 1972 respectively. This added a nice touch of authenticity to the production.
Despite the fact that the show began almost 45 minutes late, putting both performers and audience on edge, Saturday's performance was full of emotional intensity. Tzeng has a lovely voice, well showcased in her many solos, particularly in "Someone Else's Story" and "You and I." Her character, while very serious and strong, was also refreshingly funny. Wu was superb as the quiet, reserved Anatoly, while Kim made a convincingly despicable Freddie.
Anatoly's wife Svetlana, played by Colleen McGuinness '99, made a striking entrance in the second act in her solo in "You and I." Her powerful voice was a welcome surprise, as the other actors were often muffled by the orchestra. Freddie's agent Walter, played by Jeremy Moses, was another memorable character, notable for his hilarious one-liners. The principals were accompanied by a flexible and talented ensemble whose roles ranged from swarming journalists to irritating T-shirt vendors to sleazy prostitutes. The company songs, including "Reporters" and "Endgame," were excellent.
Overall, the AAA players' rendition of Chess was a provocative, high-energy production. Imaginative staging and fine performances gave it a freshness that was extremely appealing.
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