Monday, September 23, 2013

The Machine: Mind Games

"You're too fragile.  You're too human."

There's a reason Stalin wanted everyone in Russia to learn to play chess--"it's the only game where luck isn't a factor."   Rather than the conflict of man vs. machine you would expect from Matt Charman's play about Gary Kasparov's famous chess match with IBM's computer Big Blue, the play is ultimately about two men, of similar temperament, who will not stop until they make a mark on the world.

Gary Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) has spent his entire life trying to become the world champion of chess. His mother (Francesca Annis) has pushed him towards that goal since his father died when he was a child. He has not disappointed, taking down the Russian chess establishment and the previous world champ Anatoly Karpov (Cornelius Booth). A voice of the changing Russia, he embraces glasnost and radical thinking. His mind, unlike those of his predecessors, is not trapped in the old ways of Russia.

Similarly, Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee) is an immigrant from Taiwan who has left a world of rigid authoritarian thinking looking to embrace the free thinking world of the United States. His desire for innovation and creative solutions makes him a threat to his professors but proves inspiring to classmate Murray Campbell (Trevor White). Together they set off to create a fast "thinking" chess computer that could really perform on the world's stage.

Charman tries to balance both the political and personal aspects of this story but in the brisk moving play he ends up skimming the surface of both.  Charman's play subtlety explicates the struggles of immigrants and outsiders to a world that is fixed against them. Single-minded and driven, these men seem to have been put on earth to run a collision course at each other.  They are not there to destroy each other but to upend the systems in place, push their fields well beyond the bounds anyone has ever seen before, but to do that they have no choice but to defeat the other in a no-holds-barred way.   For the audience, it hard to not like both Kasparov and Hsu as they give everything over to this competition.  Charman keeps his focus on this conflict and sadly we know there can only be one winner.  

Even if you know the outcome, the journey there was mostly interesting (watching some chess scenes can be a little dull if you don't know anything about the game).

Josie Rourke's colorful (and at times overwrought) direction dials up this 100 minute play into a bit of a technological overload. With live camera feeds projecting on jumbotron-style screens above the action, elaborate choreographed sequences, and running chess commentary at times it can be hard to know where to look.  Frankly I've become disillusioned with projection as theater surface and I tried to stay fixed on the actors and only occasionally glance at the screens to get a sense of the visual style she was going for.  The performers here are very strong and on some level I found all the flash took away from them a bit.   But that said, I found the frenzied choreography on stage of computers and chess boards and people flying around worked to keep the energy up and communicate time shifts.

Many cast members juggled multiple roles and the wig department had their job cut out for them. In the end the story felt slightly more weighted in Hsu's direction. I felt that we learned more about his path to this competition. Kenneth Lee managed to make Hsu quite dynamic--which is not easy given that he spends most of his time in a computer lab fixated on something we cannot really see.  Hadley Fraser was convincing as Kasparov.  Bringing to the surface Kasparov's passion, Fraser gives us glimpses of Kasparov's desire for more from the world.  But that is tempered against his mother's fear of what that would mean for them.  The paranoia that creeps in with his small defeats is heart-breaking and Fraser carries that off nicely.

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