By Liam Blume and Ashley Duong
With a backdrop emphasized by side-by-side fifty foot American and Russian flags, adorned with a double headed eagle, “Chess” the musical features flawless choreography of song and movement that highlights mounting political tensions with allegory about strategies from a board game that can be applied to real-life politics.
Set to a mixture of classical violins and rock that brings a sense of nostalgia for the ‘80s, particularly ABBA, “Chess” is less about moves on the board and more about moves in life. Initially, a chess match between two grand masters, Trumper from America and Sergevski from Russia, who are competing for the world championship title, quickly devolves into a rivalry between the ideals of the two countries. However, even ideals are put aside, and the world championship plays second fiddle to an emerging love triangle.
Conflicts of loyalty between country, family and individual ambition drive the plot to its dramatic conclusion. The protagonist, Florence, originally the assistant to Trumper falls for Sergevski as Trumper’s flaws become too pressing to ignore or continue to put up with. Trumper, whose character could be understood as a representation of America and its leadership, is brash, impulsive and abusive towards Florence, who is eventually pushed into the arms of Sergevski, developing a love triangle that complicates the meaning of loyalty to one’s country and heritage.
Florence, caught up between two lovers, continually reiterates the theme of loyalty and allegiance; as she sings the song “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side,” she stresses that we can’t trust the information of others, even lovers and those closest to us. In the bridge, she highlights the every-man-for-himself mentality: “Everybody’s playing the game, but nobody’s rules are the same.”
Gary Busby, chair of UCI’s drama department, said in an introduction to “Chess” that the play was heavily influenced by the tumultuous 2016 elections. Conflicts between the U.S. and Russia gives the piece, originally performed in 1988, a new life and meaning.
The musical adds to the theme of UCI’s fall drama season, titled “The Business of Politics.” Ultimately, politics all boils down to people, according to Busby: “All politics is personal,” he said. “Politics is where we choose to invest our energy. It can be used to push people down, or build them up.”
“Chess” is the epitome of Busby’s message that “all politics is personal.”