Friday, August 12, 2011

SummerWorks review: Zugzwang

Last night I enjoyed my inaugural SummerWorks 2011 show, a short play called Zugzwang by Michael Atlin which I suppose I can call a "chess piece." 

For some
reason, I have never managed to whip myself into the same furor of excitement for SummerWorks as I do for the Fringe. In many ways, that makes no sense. Many of the theatres are the same, though there aren't as many in the middle. The plays tend to be about the same length, mostly bite-sized. And it's juried, which means that a watcher is much less likely to watch the unwatchable. But that's where the magic of Fringe comes into play. As a dramaturg, the most exciting thing about Fringe, aside from its sheer volume (my program guide every year looks like I'm planning some sort of military action) and the experience of desperately running from one theatre to the next and sliding in one minute to curtain, is the ability to skirt the dangers of the lottery and be one's own jury. In a way, I love the anarchic aspect. To be fair, I don't like watching painfully bad theatre, and, as such, I've gotten remarkably good at picking the good shows, figuring out from descriptions what theatre companies have aesthetics that complement my own, at riding the buzz to victory.
there's the cheap aspect. It is absolutely unfair, particularly this year, for me to criticize SummerWorks' pricing - Summerworks is cheap for theatre. But my ticket still cost about double what I'd pay at Fringe. The large Buddy Passes at the Fringe practically force you to marathon theatre, careening from one show to the next, and for less than $8 a show I find my buoys my spirit of adventure. There are only a few Summerworks passes available that come close (maybe next year I should try to snap up one of the 30 10-play passes, though I imagine they're gone in minutes).
None of this is to say
SummerWorks should change. It is a fabulous festival. But it reminds me of New York Fringe in a lot of ways. It's like a cross between Toronto and New York Fringe, I guess. I think I would be absolutely crazy about SummerWorks if Fringe hadn't been my first love, and wasn't first every summer. The main cause of my less-enthusiastic attendance, I suppose, is burnout (as you can tell from my slow, slow reviewing right now). I mainline Fringe for two weeks and then I'm done. It's an all-or-nothing feeling; I feel like to be part of the spirit of SummerWorks I need to see as many shows as I did with Fringe (which I guess would be more than half of the festival). I need to start making more of an effort to stop worrying and love the festival, and also I need to live closer to downtown so it doesn't take forever to get to Factory or Passe Muraille. Back to Factory Theatre, and inside it, Zugzwang.
Zugswang takes place in an Etobicoke Jewish Community Centre (at the "Seventh Bi-Monthly" tournament), and the set (designed by George Quan), complete with clip-arted "no smoking" flyers, certainly looks the part. Besides setting and character names, the script is remarkably free of stereotypical Jewish-related humour, which is refreshing and unexpected. That's because this script is far more interested in an exploration of chess and the people who love, or at least tolerate, it.

The Arbiter, Simon (Andy Trithardt) starts us off, not telling us in song that he knows the score, but in monologue detailing his love for the game and a strategic trap that's often used to lure new players into defeat. A fabric chessboard mounted on the wall is a nice visual that he uses to illustrate the hypothetical game. In an entertaining twist, he assures us that "it's not a metaphor for anything;" except, perhaps, for the script, which likes to keep us on our toes by subverting our expectations.
Zugzwang likes to wear its heart on its sleeve; it's light and funny with some nice character moments, not particularly aspirational in the metaphor department, and that's okay. The opening does, however, seem designed to bait the dramaturg, as the starting non-metaphor does sort of like the gun that's not allowed to go off. Karl (Josh Reaume) and Igor (Dylan George) are roommates (in college, one assumes); the first, a dedicated and deeply sexist chess nerd, the latter, seemingly drifting without direction. Sidney (Ephraim Ellis), a stylish, proper gent with organization-focused OCD, seems locked in an eternally frustrating pick-up game of life with the anything-but-stylish or proper, vulgar Bob (Matthew Gorman), whose headphones are always in use; only a shared addiction to cigarettes seems to unite them. (Having music blare from only one speaker whenever Bob removes them was a fun directorial choice [Frankie Hall], though it speaks volumes that when I first heard it, I was positive someone's cell phone was going off.) The players are rounded out by an unseen nine-year-old girl, a homeschooled prodigy with an apparently creepily dead-eyed teddy bear, and Susan (Nora Smith) whose female presence threatens Karl's concentration, which may ruin Igor's chances of a new friend.
The play mixes genuine affection for chess and its bizarre adherents with a storyline that would encourage very few to pick up a rook and join in. In particular, it reaffirms stereotypes of players as emotionally stunted nerd-men, and is unafraid to push all the sexism buttons with little repercussion; though Susan manages a small amount of extortion, her authority-sanctioned punishment for having the audacity to come play chess while being female is perhaps a bit much, frustrating while amusing. The actors all embodied the roles well; no matter how much they were given to work with character-wise, each one of them at least had a small acting treat. In particular, a rhythmic section featuring only the noises of the tournament building on themselves was seamless and joyful, a slightly absurd moment in an otherwise very naturally-built world. I found myself interested in what drew each player to chess, because the characters seemed richest in that interpretive direction. For Sid, it seemed to be the organizational aspect, for Karl, the winning and rules-lawyering (definitely a person who always needs to be right even while cheating). Igor seemed like he was playing out of inertia, to continue a long-standing tradition with a friend. Susan, perhaps to prove herself. Bob, possibly for the gambling potential, though I found myself wanting much more of his story. In fact, there were many stories that I thought could have been deepened, to create side characters who were more well-rounded and less a label or collection of tics.
This wasn't a play for introspection, though; that was made clear. It was a game, and a fun game, at that. The play's focus on the dynamics between pairs, and the strategies they used on one another to get a desired result, was very fitting for its thematic subject. Hey, maybe there was a metaphor in there, after all.


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