Each game of Chess

Means there’s one less

Variation left to be played.

This quote, from the opening number of the 1980s musical Chess, sets the stage for the multi-layered emotional journey the audience is about to undergo. To set the stage, as it were: the world was biting its nails to the quick with concern over the Cold War pissing contest between the United States and Russia. Ronald Reagan’s tough-talking policies had many worried we were on the verge of a nuclear showdown that would end badly for us all. In hindsight, it was the last gasps of the Cold War’s hold on our imaginations and our daily political lives; thus, we did not, as the lyrics suggest, exhaust the variations of the game. But politics is only a portion of the fun in the epic and overlooked musical Chess that opens this week at The Station Theatre.

With an International Chess Competition as an allegory for American/Soviet relations, the complex affair is embodied by three key players in the match. First is the Hungarian-born but Americanized Florence, a Type-A professional “handler” (Olivia Pope, anyone?) haunted by the loss of her father in the aftermath of a gruesome Russian civil battle. Her lover and charge, the “Ugly American” Freddy is a sort of bratty and pansexual chess-playing version of John McEnroe. And finally there is Anatoly, a romantic, old-world Russian champion with Puckish charm and a tragic sense of honor. As the three play a romantic game of, well, chess, the political becomes deliciously personal. With memorable tunes and an operatic sense of drama, Chess is a refreshing break from the Christmas Carols that have played since June and greedy little tikes trying to roll Santa for a new iPhone, iPad, iGloo or something else cool that begins with “i.”

To helm the production, The Celebration Company has chosen Mikel L. Matthews Jr., a fixture with The Station who has directed a varied lot of successful musicals for the company, including Evil Dead: the Musical, RENT, Zombie Prom, and the play Circle, Mirror Transformation.  Matthews also directed CUTC’s recent production of The Producers and has acted in numerous Station productions. Compared to some of his previous work, Chess is a more austere and adult offering, so I sat down with the director via email to discuss this production’s merits for our reader’s busy holiday calendar. We were joined by his lovely cast, including J. Malia Andrus, David Barkley, and Station newcomer Warren Garver.

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Smile Politely: Chess is a musical about Cold War politics in the Eighties, a sort of reaction to Reagan's hang tough attitude in dealing with Russia and Communism as a whole. It is a musical very much of its time, so what makes this musical relevant to a current audience?

Mikel. L Matthews Jr.: While the backdrop of the Cold War was timely, Chess is a smart show in that it doesn't require the audience to be living in it to appreciate the show. The love story is a Romeo and Juliet story without the poisoning. Two people being torn apart by forces beyond their control will, if they're well-written and fully realized characters, always be of interest to an audience. The human story at the heart of Chess is where the true story is.

SP: What attracted you to this piece, as a director?

Matthews:  As far as I can tell, Chess is always done as a huge production.  For me, it seems to be a much smaller play and some visual ideas I had, using lights and keeping the ensemble in darkness for some of the scenes intrigued me. The love story and the interesting ways the realities of the Cold War would touch the main characters also struck me as fun.  There are several ways you can play these characters and, because of the skullduggery and deception of the time, we're allowed to decide what's real with some of them. That's fun.

SP: What are the major challenges for mounting a production of Chess at The Station?

Matthews:  There's a scene where a character nearly gets hit by a car on stage. Since we didn't want one of the actors to run onstage pursued by an RC car, finding ways to break down the scenes from the many, many locations they were supposed to take place on to the smaller stage of the Station was a challenge. The show is full of scenes that ask for them to go from walking down a hallway, to getting into an elevator, to getting out and going in a hotel room. We brought it down to a smaller scale, since we didn't have Aaron Sorkin-style corridors to have them walk and talk down.

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The cast of Chess includes two veterans of The Station’s stage and one newcomer. J. Malia Andrus has been a regular in Matthews’ productions with lead roles in Evil Dead: the Musical, and RENT to her credit. She also had key roles in last season’s Station dramas How I Learned to Drive and Independence as well as Parkland’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood and CUTC’s The Producers. In addition to her acting duties, Andrus is a regular costumer at The Station, CUTC, and Parkland. David Barkley is a veteran of musical and dramatic theatre in the area, appearing in The Station’s productions of The Light at the Piazza, God of Carnage, and this season’s Come Back, Little Sheba. He has also appeared in CUTC’s Little Shop of Horrors and Parkland’s Once Upon a Mattress and Laughing Stock. Warren Grover comes to The Station from the Decatur area with experience in various productions in that community, including Narnia: the Muscial at Midsummer Moon Productions, Assassins at Richland Community College, and Grease at Sangamon Valley High. As with chess competitors, every move an actor makes—on stage and off—must be carefully considered. In that spirit, each of these actors has their own motivations for doing this production.

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SP: General question to all… What made you audition for this production?

J. Malia Andrus:  Well... I have wanted to play this role for 20 years (since I saw a close friend in a high school production). Actually, I think everyone in the major roles has wanted to do this show for a very long time. It's kind of a love affair bordering on obsession for some of us.

David Barkley:  Chess is an iconic musical of the Eighties. It embraces the Cold War attitudes and political pettiness of the times. The music is a real challenge. Singers need to cover two and a half octaves with accents, shifting meters, keys, tempos and styles.

Warren Garver:  Chess is the show I've wanted to do since before I even knew I wanted to do shows. I first heard the music back when I was five. My parents had seen a production of it a couple years prior and had the soundtrack on a CD, which they would play in the car all of the time. After that, I was pretty much hooked on it.

SP: What is the biggest challenge to getting inside your character?

Andrus: Florence is a dream role. There aren't a lot of parts for women in music theatre that aren't an eyelash-batting ingenue or a vamp or a sassy matron. Florence is attractive, but her chief characteristics are her intelligence and her perseverance, although she is also emotionally vulnerable. I feel kinship with that, and not many music theatre roles let you play that range or have a character like that as the protagonist. Plus, her songs are killer. I've always felt like I understand Florence, but I think now that I'm her age and have had life experiences and relationships to draw on, that's intensified. It's actually hard not to be drawn into her experience. Probably my biggest challenge is navigating the vocal demands of the music while being in the emotion of the moment. I go from full belt to delicate ballad to baroque fugue in this show.

Garver: I think the toughest part about playing Freddie is embracing all of the paranoia and just general neuroses that inhabit his character. On the one hand, he's this smooth, confident, charismatic genius, but on the other, he's constantly worried that all of the adoration and attention and respect he's gained from all of this could just evaporate in an instant. It kind of feels like playing a wildfire that can tell that there's an enormous rainstorm about to form over its head.

Barkley: Acting tall.

SP: What is a high point of this production, and why will audiences love this production of Chess?

Barkley: This music is really hard, and the cast is killing it! Our patrons will see new faces who rock their roles and hear new voices which are awesome! This cast is capable and versatile, stepping up in multiple roles and languages to create an impressive production of artistic excellence.

Andrus:  So for me, Chess is that rare musical. The music is rich and wide-ranging (somehow those Abba gents made 80s pop, epic ballads and a choral Hungarian folk song make total sense together), and the story is emotional and compelling. This is a piece about love, family, loyalty, ambition, nationality, risk, and sacrifice in the face of geopolitical forces one can't control. There's something both sweeping and intensely personal about this. What choices can you own, and when are you just a pawn? Just how much can love overcome? I think the Station space plays to this well, and Mikel Matthews as a director has a history of paring down musicals (e.g. RENT) that are typically played on grand scale and focusing on acting to showcase the interpersonal truths of the story; this is no exception. Also [80s breakout pop hit] “One Night in Bangkok!”

Garver: It's hard to pick just one thing, but as a general high point, I think the emotional impact of the show is absolutely spot-on. Sometimes people are going to laugh, sometimes people are going to cry, sometimes they're not going to know what to feel, but it's going to stick with them long after the curtain falls. 

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So, theatre-loving Champaign-Urbana: armed with this information, you know your next “move.” Chess will open Thursday, December 5th and run three weeks, with each performance starting at 8 p.m. Call 217-384-4000 for reservations, or visit The Station’s sparkly new website.