Posted by: strugglesome | September 11, 2011

Check Mate: Mark Kennedy Presents Checkers

References are a risky business. Make the right one and your listener will find out something interesting about you (or at least, who you pretend to be). Make a reference that goes unnoticed and unsung, or even worse, misunderstood, and you draw the whole conversation to a halt. And so if you create a piece of art built around a reference you have to take care to make sure that that piece either explains itself well enough to be clearly understood, or that everyone has a solid knowledge of the point of reference. For example, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead makes sense to us because every school child at some point slogs through the story of a prince, his dad, and reasons not to visit Denmark. But if you remove that knowledge of Hamlet, say, you are from outer space and think ghost stories are for losers, does Stoppard’s play stand alone? Would you get it? Would you care? And say it’s not Hamlet, the iconic work of tragedy and identity. Say it’s something a little more, well, obscure? Like Polish playwright and author Witold Gombrowicz’ Ivonna, Princess of Burgundia? I mean, it requires a great deal of a modern, western, non-Polish audience to even understand that play, let alone a play made about that play. Or do they? Well, I suppose you never know until you try.

And that’s exactly what Mark Kennedy has done with his Fringe Festival offering, Checkers, a sweet if slightly esoteric window into the life of the title character, Checkers, as he recounts and re-lives the death of his beloved Ivona. Of course, this love and devotion are all inventions of the author (Kennedy) who has imagined a whole existence for a character who, in the actual play, is never permitted to finish a line or fully enter a room. So Kennedy has allowed Checkers the opportunity to not only enter a room, but have one, not only finish a line, but get a whole damn play. He welcomes us generously into his “memory palace” (the absolutely stunning Fleisher Art Memorial sanctuary, a Romanesque style chapel with frescos, disapproving saints and marble everywhere), he serves us wine, he explains the circumstances of his existence, his encounter with his beloved, his master, the rules of his life. And he does so sweetly and sincerely, which is great, and rather opaque, which, well, isn’t. And that’s not to say that Kennedy hasn’t performed or written this piece well, and with moments of grace and beauty. But as clear as Checkers is you can’t escape the fact that if you don’t know anything about the source material you are going to be a bit in the dark.

So what is the source material, then, really? Witold Combrowicz wrote Ivonna, Princess of Burgundia, in 1933. In this play, which the author deemed a comedy and a Shakespearian parody (so it in and of itself is reflective, isn’t art fun?) a prince encounters a mute plain young lady and, though disgusted by her, refuses to accept that he is obligated to hate her, by society, for what is being a prince if not being free from all obligations? And so he engages himself to this poor sad creature, who says not a word in the play, and brings her to the court. There, in Gombrowicz’ own words, ” Ivona becomes a decomposing agent. The mute, frightened presence of her innumerable deficiencies reveals to each courtier his own blemishes, his own vices, his own dirtiness… . In a short time the court turns into an incubator of monsters. And each monster, including the fiancé, longs to murder the unbearable Ivona. Finally, the court mobilizes its pomp, its superiority and its splendor and, with full grandeur, kills her” (from A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux). Now that’s good comedy.

So now that we know what we are dealing with here, let’s turn to the decisions Kennedy has made about this play and incorporated into his own. He imagines Checkers is in love with Ivonna, desperate to save her but confined by his master, the prince, and the direct orders he has been given. As much a slave to custom and convention as anyone else in Gombrowicz’ social commentary, he is left watching, witnessing the death of his beloved over and over again, as his love for her wars with his loyalty to the prince. Or is he? Because as confined as Checkers is by his memories, all he needs to do is just walk out the door, right? If only life were that simple. The problem is that if we don’t know the play we don’t really understand all these other characters Kennedy brings onstage, the queen, the prince, Ivonna herself. And if we do know the play we think, well, what’s so special about Checkers?  How does he escape the loathing and transformation into monsters that pervades the rest of the court? How is Ivonna, who can only create hatred in others, create love in this minor character, this spear carrier, this stooge? Where Kennedy gives us a compelling and well performed what, we are left in the dark as to the how and the why. And so Checkers final act, which ought to be triumphant, and is, is also a little confusing. The whole piece, which works so hard to include its audience, can’t help but exclude us in a fairly fundamental way. So no matter how charming Kennedy is or how nicely written the prose (you can’t help but enjoy nicely crafted lines like “I let those thoughts run from my head’s door. And then I scrub the doormat.”) we, like Checkers, are always on the outside looking in. Still, at least it’s a lovely picture.

Mark Kennedy’s Checkers will be running twice more today, Sunday, September 11th. Pick up tickets here.

Comments? Questions? Concerns? I welcome them all! Please feel free to comment below!

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