If “traditional avant-garde” can be said to exist, SITI Company’s Chess Match No. 5 is it. In the spirit of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, the play uses its two characters more as flat stand-ins through which various ideas can be voiced than as rounded, human individuals. There are faint suggestions of a relationship between them, but no details are fleshed out; instead, they exist on stage solely to speak their thoughts. The dialogue, taken entirely from interviews with John Cage, is arranged by Jocelyn Clarke to create, if not a story, at least the shape of a developing conversation. We see and hear the anonymous interlocutors discussing music, art, Surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, and other topics while they perform the everyday actions of playing chess, listening to the radio, and making toast and tea.
The action on stage seems to echo (literally) one of Cage’s best known ideas — that the ambient sound in a performance space is as important as the written music itself; his infamous 4’33” is not meant to focus the audience’s attention on silence, but rather on all the other sounds that occur in the concert hall. In this play, we begin to hear the seemingly incidental sounds of the characters sweeping the floor, moving a chair, or allowing a phone to ring — along with the truly incidental sounds of an audience member coughing or shifting in her seat — as parts of a larger musical arrangement.
Such questions about the nature of music and art are substantial, but we found ourselves wondering: why these questions now, if Cage asked them (in the same words) decades ago? No doubt, Cage is an important figure in the history of music, and the way he rethought the definition of music was revolutionary. But the classical music world has moved on from these debates; the next generation of composers, like Arvo Pärt and John Adams, proved that it’s not exactly naïve to write a melody that listeners can remember.
That said, the performances of Will Bond and Ellen Lauren are superb. Both actors inflect a great deal of nuance into material that doesn’t lend itself naturally to a wide range of expression. Several times they play chess while discussing theoretical ideas about art and music; both Bond and Lauren expertly use the back-and-forth struggle of the chess match as a vehicle for expressing variations in tone as they tussle over aesthetic questions.
Brian H. Scott’s simple, yet effective, lighting design is one of the most outstanding features of the show. Bright lights hang down above the bare set, which consists of only a few pieces of furniture, a radio on a stand, and some basic kitchen appliances. The lights are strong enough to make the set look like a filmed interview shoot, and they vary subtly as the characters speak.
Stylistically, this is a challenging play, and it is encouraging to see material like this still being staged in an era of Broadway crowd-pleasers with inflated ticket prices. At the same time, it seems like the kind of experiment that is not exactly new, and one that does little to illuminate (despite the warmth and brightness of its lighting design) the issues it engages.
One of the first lines spoken by Bond’s character is “What am I doing?” It is a question we wish the play could ask itself.