The Sound of What Happens at CHESS MATCH NO. 5

Photo by Maria Baranova

First, a summary from the Abingdon Theatre Company Website:


conceived and directed by Anne Bogart
text arranged by Jocelyn Clarke
from public conversations with John Cage
created by SITI Company
A World Premiere
March 9 — April 2, 2017

featuring Will Bond & Ellen Lauren
choreography: Barney O’Hanlon
scenic and costume design: James Schuette
lighting design: Brian H Scott
sound design: Darron L West

“The sweetest music is the sound of what happens.” — John Cage

Chess Match No. 5 is a new play by Jocelyn Clarke, based on texts from the many public conversations with American composer, writer, artist, and philosopher John Cage. SITI actors Will Bond and Ellen Lauren create a unique live art performance, part chess game and part music happening, which explores the words and ideas of a visionary artist. Come experience the wide-open mind-bending brilliance of Cage’s insights about the world, about art and music, philosophy and the adventures that life presents through the conversations that he engaged in throughout his life.

Dense and humorous, graceful and penetrating, this is SITI Company in an adventurous mood, landing lightly upon the profound truths to which we all can relate.”

Second, a response:

If I’m being completely honest, this was one of those times when I brought way more of myself into the theater than I had wanted or intended. I had gone for a drink with my partner and a couple of his friends before the show, and since group gatherings always make me nervous (and the place had a surprisingly strong happy hour), I wound up, well, drunk. And for this I am quite embarrassed. I sat in the front row, and at least it kept me from nodding off; alcohol tends to make me sleepy.

But, due to my paranoia—“I am so fucked how will I be able to write about this?”—I took copious, and I mean copious notes. I scribbled a total of fifteen pages furiously, hoping that they’d be legible to me later in terms of both handwriting and meaning. After the fact, as I reflected upon how I still felt screwed, unable to even face my notes, some lines from the show haszily stood out to me: something like, “I’m interested in music as a means of changing the mind. I’m not interested in music as communication; I’m interested in it as an activity of sound.” And something else like, “Let the sounds be themselves, be open to experience.”

So, although the throughline of Chess Match No. 5 is pretty hazy to me now, and the two characters (named only “He” and “She”) feel a bit indistinct from one another in my memory, I am left with a very particular mood: a built world that feels shimmery, a bit sad, and pensive, in an existential sort of way. Some type of experience (rather than some type of meaning) was—dare I say?—transmitted to me. So you could say that, by arriving drunk, I actually followed John Cage’s suggestion to see the piece not as a communication, but as an assemblage of activity, sounds and vibration at many a frequency.

All right. No one ever said that by including this Cage quote in the piece that the artists were trying to intimate that they weren’t trying to communicate anything to us. They were speaking for a great deal of the play, after all—not, say, dancing while making nonsense noises or presenting a recording of traffic sounds, letting them wash over us as Cage quotes project onto the back wall. This piece was, as every SITI Company performance, exquisitely crafted, with great attention was paid to maintaining tone, which I would describe as “delightfully uncanny.” I am not presuming I watched the piece in “the right way,” and I would like to see it a second time sober. But, despite the fact that there is much I don’t remember, I did pay a specific kind of attention, and I want to share that as best I can now. Many things felt like things I wasn’t “supposed” to pay attention to, connections I wasn’t “supposed to” make. But that wouldn’t be very Cage-ian of me, would it?

What I Noticed During Chess Match No. 5

  • The radio that started the piece and came on at least two other times sounded a lot like the repeating numbers in Lost.
  • The fact that people don’t binge Lost like they do Friends or Breaking Bad and I think that’s a shame; despite its horrendous plotting toward the end its situations explore fascinating things about people and if you’re a person you should care about them.
  • The run in Ellen’s stocking.
  • The fact that they are an aging company.
  • The fact that Bondo as a man is allowed to age and Ellen as a woman is not; the fact that whenever Bondo teaches at SITI trainings, it seems like just about everybody has a crush on him.
  • The fact that Ellen is “severe,” which I admire and enjoy, and wish that I had the guts to be more severe; that I did not feel the compulsion to be warm because as a girl I was raised to put others at ease.
  • Me wondering if I will train with SITI Company again soon, if I can afford it and if I find enough time.
  • The jazzy clip that served as Ellen’s intro music cut out quickly, seeming to nod at or even steal from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, now streaming on Amazon.
  • Phone rings, clock ticks.
  • The smell of toast. They make it onstage, at least twice.
  • THE LAMPS (apparently I loved the lighting, but I can’t remember why. I don’t remember “lamps,” per se, but I do remember exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling from uneven lengths in that way that’s so trendy at Starbuckses [sic] these days).
  • Ellen and/or Bondo saying, “I am trying to keep it misunderstood” and “I don’t want to remember anything.”
  • “Hmmmm,” I wrote, the first hint I received that perhaps I wasn’t screwed after all.
  • Them dancing, making the onomonopoeia “bah-chick-a-pah” when there’s a flourish.
  • Bondo saying, “This is an odd way to have a conversation,” as someone sits at the table where the chessboard is and someone sits under the table on a chair (says my notes, I’m not sure what this actually looks like anymore).
  • Someone saying (Ellen or Bondo, but we know by now it’s really John Cage either way): “What I’m against is the imposition of feelings.”
  • Me feeling impatient for it to be over, because drink has taken away my attention span.
  • Ellen and/or Bondo asking (themselves? the audience?) multiple times, “What are we doing?”
  • Me thinking, “Good question.” And also, “Ooh, so meta.” A stupid-sounding thought that is not meant by me as a criticism.
  • One of them saying they’re “letting things be themselves, in all the good they contain.”
  • Me feeling uncertain that things can ever just be themselves. Aren’t our thoughts always intruding? Don’t we always “all feel like our own life is the center of the universe,” (as one of them also says) not because we’re self-centered necessarily, but because we literally cannot get outside of our own body’s perspective?
  • A quote by Satie: something like, “People think their thoughts are reality, and the world is an intrusion on that reality. I say, the world is reality, and your thoughts are the intrusion!”
  • Me positing, “They’re making a comment on how our thoughts intrude on reality. We expect to see a ‘realistic’ play because of the ‘normal’ set (chairs, table, electric tea kettle, phone). Instead, we get a sort of Beckettian weirdness in the ‘normal’ room, because they’re not after “communication,” they’re after an “activity of sound”! (and of sight? And of smell [toast]?)
  • The way they touch each other as though they are both made of glass.
  • The way the floor is white.
  • My chewing a piece of gum.
  • They are silent as they JUST PLAY CHESS.
  • Someone saying: “Art is not self-expression it is self-alteration! As Emerson asks, ‘What does the art do to the sculptor?’”  
  • Ellen or Bondo saying, “So where do we come in?”
  • Bondo or Ellen responding, “So where do we leave?”
  • Me thinking, drunk and dramatic but perhaps not wrong, “It’s like dying!
  • Them starting all over again; same beginning sequence, same Ellen entrance to Fleabag music, same making toast or maybe toast, etc.
  • Again I think, “So meta!”
  • I write: I don’t have any room for analysis only shrieking YES.

* * *
In short, I enjoyed it, very much. And I do feel like I experienced it, twice even—one drunk, once through my notes. I’ve since heard they chopped fifteen minutes from it between previews and opening. I wonder if the things they cut were things I missed, or things I will miss now if I see it again.

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