Thursday, April 19, 2012

MUCH MORE THAN A GAME - 'Fish Men' at The Goodman Theatre

(Photos by Dean La Prairie)

Including a game in a play or film can be a really awful mistake. Inherently predictable and cheesy, a game never achieves the edge-of-your-seat anticipation the author would like it to. If a knife onstage can no longer scare an audience, how can we expect the same of a tennis racket? The audience understands all too well that the maneuvers, the skillful twists, and the end result of a game have long been predetermined by the playwright and are precisely choreographed by the director. Following suit, the stakes in the simple win-lose situation are dramatically middling. In a play, from-the-belly-up fulfillment is typically elicited not from where you arrive, but how you get there.

Fish Men, a collaboration between Teatro Vista and The Goodman Theatre, which opened on Monday night, takes a complex and highly unexpected journey of character, thankfully avoiding the tired old game trap. A warm and deeply sympathetic new play by Cándido Tirado about a summer afternoon in the life of chess hustlers, Fish Men is not really about chess. Sure, youll leave the theatre with a bolstered appreciation for the game and its obsessive cult following, but that is only the mint on the pillow.

Id never even heard the term chess hustlers before I read it in the program notes, and ever since then I have been stifling a mild chuckle. But Fish Men is not another offender in the endless lineup of onstage Hoosiers variants. Tirado, a highly-rated chess master by the United States Chess Federation, knows enough about the sport to use it habitually rather than as an overdone imposition.

They play, directed with an inclusive neighborhood vibe by Edward Torres, is about eight fish men, chess hustlers (chuckle, chuckle) who play, not for pennies, but for a whopping twenty bucks a pop. Each day they arrive at dawn to claim their tables ahead of their in it to win it competitors to maintain their earned honor. But on this extraordinary day, Rey Reyes, a newcomer and seeming chess novice, encounters them with the story of his uncle, a man who lost all of his money playing chess against the hustlers and his craving for vengeance. Other than some important twists and turns, that is the chess plot.         

At times, most prominently in the first act, Fish Men's humor does get slightly lame and repetitive, reliant on one cultures observations on another. Much of the first act is, indeed, spent on the sport - and chess games, when played at a table, are just as exciting as one would expect, even if played energetically. Later in the play, chess is explored with movement in a dangerous manner reminiscent of Sam Shepard. Early exposition, however devotes many minutes to making the audience reconsider characters they would otherwise ignore on the street.

But in the second act, the play shifts to an unnerving place. It is immediately recognized that these eight characters are each of a different culture - Guatemalan, Jewish, Native American, Russian, African American, Asian, etc. a surreal choice that seems, at first, only there to allow for diversity among the cast. But the casting is more meaningful than the first act lets on.

It turns out that chess serves as a therapeutic escape for these  eight men who have all been victims of deadly crimes of prejudice the most difficult of which to discuss, genocide.

Chess is a curiously appropriate backdrop for Tirados story about genocide's effect on the individual. Think about it. Faceless pawns manipulated and destroyed without the slightest concern for their identities, their desires, or those they love.  Perhaps it is a tad silly to juxtapose chess to a thing as gargantuan as genocide, but what cause are you fighting for in chess other than to wipe your opponent off the board?

The play does not limit itself to genocide either. The diverse cast of eight paints a picture of a prejudiced world with pockets of calm and acceptance like the park in which the play is set.

This is where the real meat of the play resides. Instead of becoming wound up in a paint-by-numbers, playoff game scenario, the story turns a dark and risky corner. Its flanked by resoundingly personal monologues in which a character spiritually departs his surroundings and transports the audience to a formative experience, two of which detail direct involvement in a major world genocide.  

As Ninety-Two, a Holocaust survivor, Howard Witt has, by far, the most gut-wrenching story, taking the other characters and the audience back to his childhood days in a German concentration camp. Witts subdued reservation and unstoppable glass-half-full disposition flesh out a familiar man on a bench, sitting for hours, contemplative, with his head down.

The entire cast give likable performances, and the multi-generational characters fuel an important back-and-forth. Raúl Castillos fresh-faced Rey Reyes appears the picture of innocence, but in actuality carries the burden of rooted agonizing pain.  Pee Wee portrayed by Ken E. Head is the funniest of the group, and Cedric Mays as Cash delivers one of those lovely and terrible monologues with searing power.

Fish Men is well situated as a, perhaps inadvertent, companion piece to The Goodman's upcoming production of The Iceman Cometh, opening in early May. Both plays realize harsh, masculine worlds of trapped souls. The Owen, Goodman's movable stage, is situated in the round for Fish Men. On Collette Pollards set, we see four sides of a chessboard, four sides of Manhattan's Washington Square Park, divided by seemingly impenetrable walls to the buzzing world. People do come, and people do go, but the core characters remain onstage for the whole play. It is their safe haven. Why would they want to leave?

Fish Men resolves itself a touch too speedily and more than a touch too happily, tying up loose ends in a skeptically convenient way but the cherished segments are those gorgeously constructed monologues. The end may be overly sweet, but the journey is well worth it. -Johnny Oleksinski

Fish Men runs through May 6 at The Goodman Theatre.