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Theater: 'The Machine' infuses chess with emotional drama

“Chess is pugilism.” This quote from the new chess tourney play at Park Avenue Armory, sums up the battle cry that drives the pathos of “The Machine.”

The American premiere of this new chess play is surprisingly thrilling. And you don't need to know anything about chess. Credit: Stephanie Berger The American premiere of this new chess play is surprisingly thrilling. And you don't need to know anything about chess.

How do you write a play about a historical chess tournament and keep it engaging for audiences — even when they likely know how the real-life story turned out? In Matt Charman’s “The Machine,” it’s done by interjecting snippets of engaging backstory about the men behind the chess pieces, humanizing them to their utmost, giving the seemingly intellectual pursuit more than a few emotional stakes as well.

The majority of the play takes place in 1997, during the famous six-game match between world chess prodigy Garry Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) and the newest IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue. Other scenes cover the formative moments in the rigid upbringing of Russian Kasparov and the Carnegie Mellon collegiate days of Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee, the lead developer of Deep Blue).

The tone is set well before the actors take their marks. The theater is arranged like a sporting arena within the massive 55,000-square-foot drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, with stadium seating on four sides of a square stage topped with screens, a la score boards. On these screens, audience members watch the tournament unfold as if through their TVs, the way many watched the event in real time from their couches at home over a decade ago. Close-up aerial views of the men’s dizzying feats of chess-playing are stunning on a meta level, making viewers keenly aware of the amount of work that must have gone into the actors’ choreography to reenact those notorious strategies.

Of course, in this story, the men who face off in the tournament are themselves like machines, while the machine takes on suspiciously humanistic characteristics right before the players’ eyes. Toeing the line between technophobia and all-too-human paranoia, this play keenly balances both sides of the board, setting up a taut and thrilling parable where the lines between antagonist/protagonist are blurred and absolutely nothing is black-and-white.

‘The Machine’
Through Sept. 18
Park Avenue Amory
643 Park Ave.
$90
www.parkarmory.org

Follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy

 
 
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