Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Fish Men" reviewed by Chris Jones

Claire and I saw Fish Men Sunday night.  Chris Jones reviews here.

The performers are very good, the premise is great, and the playwright, NM Cándido Tirado, captures the absurdist intensity of the blitz hustle.  Jones calls the play "thematically overstuffed," a fair complaint.  Maybe a better way of putting it is that there's one theme, man's inhumanity to man, and it's beaten into the ground.  (The e5 square has never been overprotected by a disciple of Nimzowitch to the extent this theme is overdetermined in Fish Men.)  And the dénouement (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) risks descent into the Harold-and-Maudlin.

But I think the political theme works well in Washington Square Park.  Jones is incorrect to argue that "this play is just too overloaded with weighty geo-political metaphors and personal secrets for this little section of the park to credibly hold, especially since all these traumas seem to come crashing down at once."  Talk to the immigrants you play chess with, and ask them how they came to be here in Chicago.  I don't want to give away any spoilers, but think of how much the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War affected the Chicago chess community.   The stories of the late Osman Palos and the recently deported Aleksandar Stamnov are tragic, and both stories could easily have been worked into this play.  The persecuted of all nations flee to American cities.  And when they get here, they play chess in the park.

Fish Men begins with the hustler Cash's discussion of a famous drawn game from the Kasparov-Anand match of 1995.  But the destruction of the site of that match on September 11, 2001, is never explicitly invoked, even though the World Trade Center was and is just a few blocks from Washington Square Park.  

Yeah, the play is overdetermined.  But yeah, people are repeatedly and needlessly cruel to other people.  I prefer the oblique critique to the direct, Dylan to Phil Ochs, Beckett to Tony Kushner.  The problem with an oblique message play is that your message can be misunderstood or lost.  Tirado doesn't have this problem.

Well worth seeing for all my complaints: if you're on the main floor, you'll be a well-placed kibitzer. At the intermission, a stagehand was setting up a Sicilian middlegame for Act II.  I left my seat to tell her that the same King's Gambit game (featuring ...Qh4+, ...Qxb2, and a decisive f5-f6 push) was used for two differenct scenes in Act I.  Mr. Memory (that's me) noticed this and found it mildly annoying.  Then Mr. Memory returned to what he thought was his seat and had to be told to move by a nice lady....