If the $190 million box-office gain from the re-release of “Titanic” shows us anything, it is that the world will always be fascinated with death on catastrophic scales. Mass loss of life triggers some kind of reaction in our brain that keeps us watching our televisions, admiring of art, and, as The Goodman recently tried to invoke, going to the theater. Its new production, “Fish Men” by Candido Tirado, attempts to explore these themes of genocide through the lens of matches played by chess hustlers and their “fish” in New York’s Washington Square Park. And while set designer Colette Pollard creates an incredible recreation for the characters to play in, the acting, with no help from the script, has trouble fitting into it.
The story centers around a group of chess hustlers who, while trying to entice a catch, unwitting create a game with a survivor of genocide by the name of Rey Reyes (Raul Castillo), who is not what he first appears to be. Reyes, whose uncle was recently swindled by the group, has come back to seek a misguided justice for the wrong done to his uncle by taking the hustlers for all the money they have. And that is where the problems begin.
Shallow character development makes it impossible to feel the appropriate amount of sympathy for the character’s grief. Recreational chess player Jerome (Ricardo Gutierrez) is a Native American who opens his mouth only to lament the land stolen by the white man long ago, and speaks mainly in proverbs. This stereotype seems like it would be offensive to anyone, and though his points may contain kernels of truth, the manner in which they are presented often elicits laughs from the audience, rather than thoughtful consideration. It is as if Tirado has attempted to create a modern-day Confucius, but without all of the depth and intrigue. Another character who sits in the park for hours on end is Adam Kirchbaum (Howard Witt), more commonly known as 92, a once famous player who has sworn to give up the game forever. Plagued by nightmares from his days in yet another genocide, he begs Reyes not to resort to revenge, that it will never bring his family back, the usual lessons learned at the end of one’s life.
From this criticism one character must be excluded: Cash (Cedric Mays), a grad-school-dropout-turned-hustler, whose philosophizing about the core of human nature may be the one redeeming quality of the script. Mays gives an incredible performance that outshines any of the other characters involved, simply by his subtlety.
The parts of the performance most confusing are when a character will burst into a shouting match or long lecture about the history of their people, or the hardships they have suffered. These long monologues, accompanied by dramatic lighting and mood music, fail to come across as genuine. Too many geographically sparse history lessons are crammed into two hours, and it results in the production feeling more like a lecture than any type of casual conversation that might be possibly occur in a park over a chess match.
When the production is truly at its best, no one is saying much; they are playing chess. Focused on the game, the acting is brought off of the level of overdone lessons about the value of forgiveness and humanity and into another dimension entirely. Allowing the actors to portray the predatory nature of chess–the clash between absolute control and the ego driven emotional battle–this is where the real value in the play is found. When the lights dim to all but the chess board, the sounds of the pieces hitting the table, the illumination on the faces of the opponents, the audience holds their breath with anticipation.
If one were to discount the extreme outbursts of emotion, lengthy lectures and much too-broad history lessons, the core of “Fish Men” is an intriguing one. The concept of genocide explored by survivors through a mutual love of a game all about control–the thing they have lacked for so long–has the capability to be fascinating. But without serious revision, this production is just too overstuffed and showy to really be of substance.