Beautiful Problems has issues of its own
By Andrew Laurenson, in collaboration with the cast. Directed by Paul Ternes. A Radix Theatre production. At the Roundhouse Community Centre on Friday, May 13. Continues until May 21
Chess—the game for which Dada artist Marcel Duchamp forsook his art career because he was drawn to its “beautiful problems”—gives this show its title and central metaphor. But much of the game’s beauty comes from its rigorous structure—something that this play needs more of.
Playwright and performer Andrew Laurenson opens with the observation that “Sometime in the last 20 years, things started to get complicated.” The script weaves together autobiographical reminiscences (his teenage response to life’s increasing complexity was to try to master a Radio Shack electronic chess game) with meditations on the fraught relationship between humans and technology, encapsulated in the 1997 defeat of chess world champion Garry Kasparov by an IBM computer, Deep Blue.
Under Paul Ternes’s direction, Laurenson is engagingly understated in presenting his personal stories, and he makes inventive use of a topnotch acting trio, as well as a community chorus, to dramatize the world of chess. In an early scene, Laurenson explains the game’s rules, while life-size pieces perform the moves. Lesley Ewen’s Queen vamps imperiously in a black sleeveless dress and white gloves; Billy Marchenski canters equinely as a Knight; and Emelia Symington Fedy is dismayed to discover she’s a Pawn. Meanwhile, projections of elaborately hand-carved chess pieces fill three floor-to-ceiling banners upstage. It’s playful and handsome, as are the show’s best moments.
As someone of Laurenson’s generation, I was also viscerally struck by many of the cultural references (the Sex Pistols, Helen Caldicott, the murder of John Lennon) in his more straightforward narration of the preoccupations of his youth. But the play’s various styles only rarely mesh into a satisfying whole, as when a tableau of Laurenson’s family watching the 1969 moon landing on television is repeated decades later as they watch a CBC news report (with a hilariously dated Peter Mansbridge voice-over) about a new phenomenon called “Internet”.
Christy Watson's whimsical chess-inspired costumes, Michael Sider’s inventive video projections, and Itai Erdal’s deliciously colourful lighting all contribute to the show’s sensual sumptuousness, as does live music from Ron Samworth and Andrea Young.
But all this beauty can’t solve the play’s fundamental problem: a lack of coherence. I appreciated many moments in Beautiful Problems, but I wish it added up to more.