Friday, November 25, 2005
Merrimack Repertory Theater's The Art of Sacrifice: check, but not checkmate
"World premiere" is an exciting phrase. It causes a frisson of anticipation in the audience, who are part of something no one has seen before, and might have the chance to say, "I saw the first performance of that play, that work of art, that blockbuster." For the producers of the piece, there is always the excitement of bringing out something entirely new, and that is part of the MRT's oft-stated mission to challenge and stretch the Merrimack Valley theater-going audience. However, there is also, for all, the nervous fear that all the audience will get a chance to witness is the laying of a big old goose egg.
The MRT's world premiere of The Art of Sacrifice is not a goose egg, but neither is it something entirely new. The play itself is another twist on the old metaphor of seeing life as a game: in this case, a chess game. This old chestnut is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's leading Alice through the odd chess moves of Wonderland, confronting her with red and white queens, kings, and knights. When she realizes that the game is not just chess, but also cards, Alice is the hands-down winner. Life, she comes to realize, is not a game, but something better and more absorbing. In The Art of Sacrifice, however, the characters are so consumed with chess that it has taken over their lives. This sort of intense focus could make for searing drama: two characters in mental combat for 90 minutes without intermission. And indeed, there is enough in Anthony Clarvoe's play to give actors a good deal to grapple with.
The play's opening gambit shows Aron, grand master and U.S. chess champion, paying a visit to his father, Will, to check on his health. As it turns out, Will is far from well. His obsession with his son's talent for chess has caused him to drive away both his wife and his older son, and to sacrifice his younger son Aron's childhood to learning the game. Aron remembers being deprived of sleep, food, and even the use of the toilet to practice his moves and strategy, but the sacrifice pays off in chess victories.
That kind of surrender always backfires, of course. Poor Aron grows up as a chess machine, deprived of social skills: with breathtaking daring, he can sacrifice chess pieces to achieve checkmate, but cannot figure out how to dress for a Fourth of July barbeque. The play moves the audience through the entire family's destruction at the hands of the obsessive Will, and inexorably toward the revelation of Aron's childhood revenge upon his father. It is a move to check, but it is too appropriate to Aron's stunted character: it is childish and pathetic, and fails to set up checkmate. Too much has been sacrificed to the game.
By rights, a structure like this should leave an audience flattened, but despite valiant effort, Clarvoe and the MRT do not quite achieve checkmate — yet. Lighting for the play is bright, harsh, and constant, and not reflective of the changes in mood and rhythms in the script. The set is more satisfying, with a few pieces of cheap furniture trapped in a room defined not by walls, but by tacky shelving crowded with Aron's trophies: the flimsy shell of Will's sick dreams, and not at all a home.
The press night production was hampered more, however, by the fact that Nesbitt Blaisdell had taken over the role of Will from another actor only shortly before the opening, and was still unfamiliar with it and using a script onstage. Deprived of the full use of his hands and eyes as he held and read from the script, Blaisdell was unable to move freely, time his lines precisely, or completely engage his partner, Jeremiah Wiggins, as Aron. Wiggins was, therefore, as hampered as Blaisdell. Given little to play to, he had to carry the whole show, and he became progressively more desperate and shrill in his attempts to do so. Through no fault of his own and despite Blaisdell's efforts, his timing also suffered and the result was unbalanced, labored, and decidedly unfinished. The audience had to work as hard as the actors.
In the end, the ugly little family game is a draw, and so is the play. This production, however, has potential if Blaisdell can begin to own the character of Will. Like a chess game, it needs an understanding and strategy of the whole, while the details are played out with a perfect balance of precision, timing, emotional control, and ruthlessness. It could be a tour de force for two actors: perhaps the game is not over yet and the king is still at large.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito