Chess an epic story of love and Cold War politics

There are so many epic elements of the musical Chess: the score, by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. The love story between characters Florence Vassy and Anatoly Sergievsky. The Cold War politics embedded in the chess match between American grandmaster Freddie Trumper and Russian grandmaster Anatoly Sergievsky.

One thing is certain: Chess is no ordinary chess match. You can catch all in Walterdale Theatre’s production of Chess, running July 6 – 16.

Chess at Walterdale Theatre July 6 – 16. Poster design credit: Jessica Poole

In Chess, we watch the chess game of the century, at the height of the Cold War as the American grandmaster (played by Matt Boisvert), faces the Russian grandmaster (Todd Hauk), while Florence (Lauren Pearson), the American second is caught in the middle. As Florence tries to prevent Freddie’s abrasive behaviour from making him lose the chess title, she and Anatoly fall in love. However, in the Cold War a game between a Russian and an American can never be just a game, and the respective governments intervene, manipulating people and situations in an effort to bring their country out on top.

Kristen Finlay, who directs this production of Chess, says it was the music that originally drew her to the show, but it was Florence’s story and the global politics that intertwine with it that resonates so strongly with her, “Those ABBA guys know how to write really compelling music and they write really well for women. Over the years ‘Someone Else’s Story’ has been one of my go-to audition pieces and they have a way of writing a song that it’s not just a catchy melody, but there’s always emotion and a story… The other reason I really love this show, especially for it being written in the mid-80s, the central character is a woman. It’s interesting, because if Florence had been alive today, she would have been the grandmaster playing against Anatoly because she was that good at chess. That’s the thing, knowing she’s so smart and how does she fit into this world?… Part of it is that awakening that she is more than this… I think a lot of women will watch it and go this to some degree does still happen – we have not completely busted that glass ceiling. Sometimes the smartest person in a room is a woman and it’s not recognized”

Kristen says the ever-present backdrop to the play are the American and Russian government’s manipulations of the character’s situations. “The metaphor of chess is that it’s actually about the politics of the situation. These top elite players are definitely pawns government… They get moved and manipulated so that the governments get what they want and, at the base of it, we have these two people who should be together and that’s what makes it so tragic when the politics and the machinations of their governments tear apart this beautiful love story.”

For those who remember the Cold War, you’ll see not just the government manipulations and paranoia embedded in Chess, but also the xenophobic attitudes and comments people genuinely held. These attitudes are most obviously expressed through Freddie Trumper, the American grandmaster based on Bobby Fischer, played by Matt Boisvert. Matt describes his character very bluntly, “If I could sum Freddie up in a word, it would be ‘the worst’. He’s pretty insufferable. Freddie is one of those people who is incredibly smart, so smart that most of the time he’s the smartest person in the room. Unfortunately, the social parts of his brain are broken… Freddie is very charismatic and it is 1986, so for him to make those offhanded comments is very time period-appropriate… Because he is very charming, he’s one of those characters you love to hate – ‘oh, I hate that scoundrel’.”

The cast of Chess at Walterdale Theatre July 6 – 16. Photo credit: Janine Hodder

Matt agrees with Kristen that the politics embedded in Chess make it far from what you might think of as a traditional musical. “The play is written as a commentary on the Cold War and the attitudes and the behind-the-scenes of CIA and KGB than you would expect from a musical. Chess is a metaphor for the entire Cold War as well – the way that they play and use the media for political gain… There is the spirit of sacrificing the pawn and other pieces to get what you ultimately want. In the end, they even insinuate that the whole thing is just sort of a game – it’s almost implied that the Cold War is just sort of a game these countries are playing with each other. We move, they move – sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but that’s just sort of the game. They just reset and go again.”

Chess plays at Walterdale Theatre (10322 – 83 avenue) July 6 – 16. Tickets are $14 – $20 (plus applicable fees) in person at Walterdale or through Tix on the Square. Monday, July 4 is a student preview, which is free for students with valid student ID, Thursday, July 7 admission is two-for-one, and there is a talk-back with the cast and team after the performance on Wednesday, July 13.