More than heated chess competitions occupies the center of Cándido Tirado’s New York premiere of Fish Men at INTAR, as five men who gather around the chess tables in Washington Square Park maneuver for higher stakes than mere checkmates in a game.
The four regulars at the tables include Cash (Shawn Randall), John (Gardiner Comfort), Jerome (David Anzuelo) and Ninety-Two (Ed Setrakian). They squabble among themselves about money, survival and the hustle. They also begin to slowly divulge the secrets of their lives, one darker than the other. The men share some sort of oppression and/or discrimination. Each in his own way has taken a stand against the powers that be. They are subtle activists, yet nonetheless fighting for what they believe.
Cash is a former Ph.D. candidate who gave up his academic career due to a traumatic act of racism. When he reported the incident, he was met with passivism and injustice. He chooses to take destiny in his own hands. He leaves the academy and turns to the streets to hustle a life playing chess. It is his way of protesting against the racist systems that have robbed him of his humanity. As a result, the audience can surmise that his personal relationships have not gone well. At the start of the play, he is on the verge of losing his bond with son; his redemption may be a bike for his boy’s birthday.
John is the other hustler who is caught in the middle of his gambling issues. His love for betting is going to cause “his hands to be cut off,” as his bookie has warned him. He thinks about playing chess with his feet for a second but although he may laugh, he realizes the severity of his situation: he needs to make money to save his appendages. His need is far greater than a normal day of hustling. He needs a big fish.
Jerome, on the other hand, doesn’t play for money but for the love of the game. He tells of how he is among the few survivors of the free sport at the park and is thinking of moving to another park where players aren’t hustlers. Jerome is a Native American who sprinkles in anecdotes of genocide and discrimination against his people. A fisherman by trade, he has had his fair share of systematic abuse. He has retired to what he believed would be time spent playing a friendly game of chess. His choice not to play for money can be seen as a stand on injustice and corruption.
Ninety-Two is a sweet elderly man who no longer plays chess but was once a prodigy. He gave up playing chess when he won a game in the Nazi concentration camp that was supposed to free his family. They were killed in spite of his win and he never played again. His actions are also a form of self-activism taken upon a cruel and unjust belief.
They are later joined by Rey (José Joaquín Pérez), who has come to avenge his uncle, who lost a huge sum of money to Cash and John the day before. Rey now wants a chance to win some of his uncle’s money back. His motivation for wanting to help his uncle stems from being a survivor of the Guatemalan war. His uncle saved him when his village was invaded and his family was slaughtered. Rey carries deep-rooted pain and unresolved issues. The act of his uncle being swindled becomes the catalyst to Rey’s downward spiral.
The tension begins when the group realizes that this even keeled young man is no amateur. Tempers begin to rise and the game is no longer friendly. What started as teaching some con men a lesson turns into a life-or-death situation. Rey’s trauma surfaces and the group must now call upon their tragic pasts to help Rey get past his demons and ultimately save their lives. The strategic moves they must make involve more than pieces on a chessboard; it is the game of survival.
Tirado’s craftsmanship includes solid structure, paced well by director Lou Moreno, although the final build-up could be bigger and with more urgency. The characters and world he creates are original and intriguing. The set director, Raul Abrego, has designed a persuasively detailed park down: the realistic stone chess tables, the benches, and a water fountain are wonderful. Moreno uses traverse staging, which helps simulate the feel of a park: benches on opposite sides are parallel to one another, and the audience members inevitably become a close observer to the lives of these men, on this particular day, in this particular park, in Manhattan.
Fish Men plays through March 18 at INTAR (500 West 52nd St., between 10th and 11th Avenues. For tickets and information, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.intartheatre.org.