Choreographed Chess

Choreographed Chess

Posted by: Elizabeth Elliott at 04/24/2012 01:32 PM

Candido Tirado’s Fish Men, now playing in the Owen Theatre, chronicles an afternoon in Washington Square Park with a group of chess hustlers who play a series of lightning-fast games designed to confuse and swindle any “fish” foolish enough to take them up on a match. But as audiences observe the speedy matches they may not know that the actors on stage aren’t just randomly moving pieces around as quickly as possible—they’re playing actual moves of actual games that they’ve memorized just like their lines and their blocking.

Playwright Cándido Tirado looks over the set's chess board

Mark ViaFranco, the understudy for the roles of Rey and Jerome and Fish Men’s chess captain, worked with playwright Cándido Tirado to perfectly time the chess moves with the lines. Many of the actors in the show were new to chess, so much rehearsal time had to be set aside to learn each of the games. Playwright Tirado compares learning the games to learning the steps to a dance, and has said that this play is similar to a musical in terms of all the things that the actors had to learn to make the performance what it is. Two of the games in the show were taken directly from grandmaster chess matches, and the final game in Fish Men is a famous match played by Aron Nimzovitch and Akiba Rubinstein in 1926.  Tirado chose this last game due to its fame, noting, “the game is famous because of the Knight maneuver Nimzovitch played, bringing his Knight to H-1 to start an attack that led to the culmination of the game.”

Chess notes on a page of the Fish Men script


As chess captain, Mark’s role during rehearsals and previews was to watch the show close to the chess board and observed the games as they were played, citing the mistakes, if any, and calculating what went wrong and how to get the game back on track. (In addition to learning the games, he also had to learn the lines for the roles of Rey Reyes and Jerome. As you can tell by his script, it’s filled with both the blocking and the games themselves.) For chess aficionados, this show is sure to impress with not only the chess language and terms in the play, but also from the games being played right in front of you, accurate down to the last move. 

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