There are team sports, and then there are the individual formats in which each player pits their skills and wits against a single adversary. The latter have nowhere to turn, no one to cover up for their mistakes. It is simply do or die.
That clearly applies to chess, with each player putting their cerebral abilities through the mill as they try to outdo their rival. The intellectual grind ante is pushed up to the proverbial 11 mark in The Royal Game, aka Chess Story, a short novel by celebrated Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, an English language one-man rendition of which will be performed by American actor Richard McElvain, on November 22 (8 p.m.), at Beit Mazia in Jerusalem, as part of the third annual International Jewish Festival.
It is basically a harrowing tale, in which a Viennese lawyer kept in solitary confinement, after the Anschluss, as a monarchist and, hence, viewed as an enemy of the fascist regime, initially finds emotional refuge from his enforced solitude in a chess book. However, he eventually goes off the deep end as he becomes ever more obsessed with the tactics of the game which consume his every thought.
The storyline of the theater production is played out on an ocean liner, plying a route between New York and Buenos Aires, in 1942 – coincidentally, the year in which Zweig, despairing of the state of World War II, commits suicide in Brazil – with McElvain playing five main characters and a bunch of secondary figures.
With such an emotionally charged plot to portray, on his lonesome, McElvain has his work cut out for him to not only do his thespian best to get the action and pathos of the text across, he also has manage his own state of mind.
“I’ve been doing the play for around two years, and it’s always a challenge to do. It hasn’t gotten easier,” he notes.
The actor says he is keen to convey the full impact of the storyline, and endeavors to stay on his toes.
“I’ve never done the show the same twice,” McElvain says. “I’ve always tried to find new things every time I do it. I try to make this character more specific, or that moment more clear or more suspended. So it’s always a mountain to climb, every time I do it.”
That should ensure the audience gets the full brunt of the dramatic roller-coaster ride, even if we don’t get to see all the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed.
“I can never think of doing the whole thing,” McElvain confesses. “I can only think of doing the first five pages [of the book], and then see if the audience throws me off the stage,” he laughs. “Then I’ll do another page and then another page and, if they stay with me, I’ll do another page. The idea of doing the whole show is a daunting thing I avoid.”
But, even if the Beit Mazia audience doesn’t get to see every single detail of the Zweig novella acted out on stage, it is a fair bet that it will get more than just the gist of the plot.
“I am happy if an audience finds the show emotionally exhausting, and I do take liberties with the book,” says McElvain. And not just about the written word from the Zweig tome. For McElvain, there is a powerful subtext which he does his best to impart. “I think one of the more interesting things about the show is to do an adaptation of the story, in this one person show, and I also have sort of metatheater thing, where I step out of the show and I talk about the struggles of writing and performing the play.”
McElvain draws us, not only into the madness and horrors of the Nazi era, and the trauma experienced by the protagonist, a certain Dr. B, but also into the theater experience in general which, he says, is really make believe.
“This guy, the central character [in the play] survives by creating this illusion of a game of chess which doesn’t really exist,” he says. “In a sense, we do the same thing when we go to the theater. We got to the theater to enrich our lives, to examine what we’re doing and try to be enlightened, to live a better life. But nothing is really going on, it’s just an illusion we all play.”
Now, there’s a thought. Clearly the Beit Mazia patrons will get more than just a polished thought-provoking rendition of the Zweig book. “There’s kind of a larger frame as well as the story itself,” McElvain says.
Considering the narrative, and the emotional maelstrom that underpins Chess Story, it might not be such a bad idea to take a breather from Zweig’s work once in a while. There is high drama and some outpourings of an acute nature along the way, as Dr. B not only has to contend with his torturous circumstances under lock and key, he also has to confront his Nazi-induced demons when he eventually gets out of Europe, and comes across a chess match being played on a ship which involves, no less, the world’s leading grandmaster. The latter is a pompous character by the name of Czentovic whom Zweig depicts in textual high relief.
The book itself is a slim volume that invites a fast read, and the author’s flair for spinning a yarn, and conveying the full emotional Monty, makes for a compelling theatrical performance. Indeed, all the ingredients for a heart-wringing are front and center, which, while tending to grab the audience by its lapels, could also do with some light relief from time to time. After all, no director or actor wants his audience to be so mesmerized by the onstage action that they suffer sensorial overload.
McElvain was alert to that land mine from the outset, and was aware of the need to offer his observers some respite from the protagonist’s psychological woes. That involved taking liberties with the source, and augmenting Zweig’s story with some new input.
“I have this invented character who walks out of the audience and takes the storytelling away from me, and tells the story of Czentovic,” he says. “That’s a kind of comic new experience for the audience which has just gone through this harrowing story about the guy surviving in solitary confinement. I rearrange things a bit.”
McElvain is intent on keeping things fresh, both for himself and for the paying theatergoer, and says he delights in improvising on Zweig’s theme, and expanding on some of the characters in what he hopes is a seamless and natural continuum.
“I’ve made Czentovic a Nazi, because he’s been ridiculed all his life,” he explains. “National Socialists were people who had been denigrated and it [joining the Nazi party] gave them a sense of identity.” Even so, McElvain does not consider the book, or the play, as running along fundamentally Jewish lines. “I don’t think it’s about the Holocaust. I think it’s a play about survival, although certainly the Jewish experience is a strong thread in the storytelling.”
While the show has been doing the rounds, McElvain says he has received a wide range of responses, including from Holocaust survivors, their offspring, people who knew Zweig personally and chess players. He says he not only listens to their comments, he also takes some of them on board and works them into later performances of the play. It will be interesting to see how the members of the Jerusalem audience react, and how that informs McElvain’s take on the book down the line.For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and http://www.bmz.org.il/
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