Guest Theatre Review: "Fish Men," at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Features Washington Square Park Chess Area as Backdrop To "Riveting" Story

Fish Men

This is a guest post and theatre review by Linda Zises of the currently-running Chicago-based “Fish Men.”

Fish Men, the latest play by Cándido Tirado at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is an ambitious venture inspired by New York City’s Washington Square Park Chess area in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 attack on the City.

Using eight characters, each one drawn from New York City’s ethnically rich melting pot, the play moves from one moment to another, one group to another, their allegiances ever changing, with an ease that only a veteran playwright can achieve. Clearly, Tirado is a master of the art.

Each character is a chess hustler — that’s why they are in the park, to make a living or a killing by playing chess. What unites them is their historical roots as holocaust survivors. The rage and revenge that plagues each character looks for relief in the “fish men.” The “fish” is the weak player, the one the others hope to make their prey. But the fish is ever changing.

As the intensity of the play heightens, the physical space designated for chess in Washington Square Park seems to contract, making a dramatic statement about the park, the City, and a game where there is always a loser, a fish.

The acting in Fish Men is superb. After a play or movie has ended, I often can’t remember which actor played which part. But the intensity of the actors, and the playwright’s ability to hear and recreate real people was so compelling that I had no such problem. Even now as I write, I remember them well.

The stage design with the recreated chess area placed in the center, surrounded by arena type seating, was perfect for this play. Although I sat in the front row at the level of the stage, I often felt as if I was looking down on the actors in a panoramic view of the action.

The wealth of information, facts on world politics that enriches the actors’ narrative was extraordinary and the passion conveyed was almost overwhelming. There is a thin line between being profound and being preachy in a play.  I think the first act was truly profound and incredibly clever. Riveting is my adjective of choice.

In the second act, this quality was compromised, due to, I think, the nature of the core material. It was so highly charged; watching the actors unravel, showing what inspired their fanaticism with a game of chess, that it bordered on the preachy side of the divide.

It takes trust of an audience to lower the passion level of the content enough to allow the audience to fill in much of what is presented in explicit terms. If the second act were condensed into less than an hour, this would have brought a more focused and intense experience of the material.

The ambitious Fish Men brings together world politics, Reuben Fine’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the game, the human need to be together – as opposed to playing with a machine – and what informs the fanatic player of chess. Most importantly, this is a play about our need to be together, to talk to one another, to be in the world rather than alone and lonely with only our fantasies to inform our life choices.

Fish Men should be seen by a variety of audiences. It’s perfect for school performances, park productions, perfect for the incarcerated many, and lends itself to a Circle in the Square-type production where people can feel as if they too can play chess, especially those who never have. Chess is, after all, a game, a game of life. And how we play it makes all the difference between life, death and the violent or pacifist-loving ways in which human nature ultimately comes to the fore.

*Reading the Goodman Playbill is an important part of the performance.  Without the Glossary much of the play’s depth is compromised.

– Linda Zises

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** Fish Men at the Goodman Theater in Chicago opened April 7th with performances running through May 6th.

Note: I spoke with playwright Cándido Tirado last week about his experiences at the Chess Plaza at Washington Square Park which informs and motivated the creation of the play. That piece to follow! – cathryn