Chess Match No. 5

The composer John Cage died in 1992. His music was so enormously creative as to be revolutionary. Aside from his music, he left behind the texts of many public conversations that reveal his musical and philosophical ideas. Anne Bogart, one of the Co-Artistic Directors of SITI Company, has used this material in conceiving a production called Chess Match No. 5, which she’s created with SITI Company and which has been presented by Abingdon Theatre Company.

Jocelyn Clarke has arranged the texts of Mr. Cage’s conversations as dialogue for two characters, named in the program simply as He and She. He clearly represents Mr. Cage. He’s the master, the teacher, and most of the dialogue consists of her questions and his answers. To be sure, He occasionally asks her a question, but he is clearly the maestro. The conversation turns on music and philosophy.

At the top of the show Mr. Bond enters and, after several moments, says “What am I doing?” The question echoes for the rest of the cryptic play.

The setting is the home of He, and She comes to play chess. They also drink coffee and, later, whiskey. They dance a couple of times, and they play the radio, but mostly they play chess. Oddly, she wins the two games. Some moves occur after considerable silence while they players cogitate, and some occur quickly. Sometimes the game gets stylized, and the players hit the button of the timer alternately in rapid succession without moving the chess pieces.

The telephone rings, but no one answers it, although She tells us “Many people ask me How do I reach John Cage? and I say Just pick up the telephone.

Whatever the ornamentation to the text, the substance of the play is its dialogue. Its significance is not that it reveals the relationship between the characters but that it expresses Mr. Cage’s ideas. The play isn’t a drama at all. It’s a Socratic dialogue, a lesson on the nature of music. The characters never refer to themselves or to what they’re doing, with the exception of the words “check” and “check mate”.

Repeatedly He expresses Mr. Cage’s philosophy. “I am trying to keep it mysterious” He says, referring to nothing in particular. And later She says “I like art to remain mysterious.” When She asks “What is this about?” He responds: “It is my intention to let things be themselves.” Silence, He tells us, is “a state of affairs free of intentions.” The influence of Buddhism on Mr. Cage is evident throughout.

She also reflects his Zen ideas. She tells us a few short stories during the play. One of them is about people trying to guess why a man is standing on a hill. When they ask him, he replies “I just stand.”

Interesting as these ideas are, the dialogue alone wouldn’t absorb us in the play. What’s more, there’s no plot or specific characterization. What involves us is the astonishing moment-to-moment life of the two actors, Will Bond and Ellen Lauren. Even without dramatic action, they act with certitude and conviction. He wipes dust off table with his finger; She brushes lint from her dress. These simple gestures are illuminated with stage truth. Ms. Bogart’s direction is impeccable.

There are many exposed light bulbs overhead in this room, and the lights change from time to time, as when the phone rings or when He turns off the radio, but often for no reason. And from time to time He speaks a number, regarding nothing. “35” he says, or “133”. The production, like Mr. Cage, is keeping it mysterious.

This is a play with a complete lack of conflict. The characters in Chess Match No. 5 are entirely agreeable, to each other and to us. What’s more, they enjoy this hyper-intellectual conversation, and so we do as well. Art theory has never been so delicious.

Their only bit of offstage life they exhibit comes as they exit. She says “It’s never gone on this long before,” and we have some slight context for She’s visit.

It’s possible to imagine the dialogue as an argument rather than a conversation, or that the characters’ relationship might change during their 90 minutes of stage life. But that would be to do the show an injustice, to imagine it as something other than it wants to be. Chess Match No. 5 is a terrific explication of musical and philosophical ideas, a marvelous tribute to Mr. Cage.

Steve Capra
March 2017

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