Guest Theatre Review: “Fish Men,” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Features Washington Square Park Chess Area as Backdrop To “Riveting” Story and Performances

Fish Men

This is a guest post and theatre review by Linda Zises of the currently-running Chicago-based “Fish Men.”

Fish Men, the latest play by Cándido Tirado at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is an ambitious venture inspired by New York City’s Washington Square Park Chess area in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 attack on the City.

Using eight characters, each one drawn from New York City’s ethnically rich melting pot, the play moves from one moment to another, one group to another, their allegiances ever changing, with an ease that only a veteran playwright can achieve. Clearly, Tirado is a master of the art.

Each character is a chess hustler — that’s why they are in the park, to make a living or a killing by playing chess. What unites them is their historical roots as holocaust survivors. The rage and revenge that plagues each character looks for relief in the “fish men.” The “fish” is the weak player, the one the others hope to make their prey. But the fish is ever changing.

As the intensity of the play heightens, the physical space designated for chess in Washington Square Park seems to contract, making a dramatic statement about the park, the City, and a game where there is always a loser, a fish.

The acting in Fish Men is superb. After a play or movie has ended, I often can’t remember which actor played which part. But the intensity of the actors, and the playwright’s ability to hear and recreate real people was so compelling that I had no such problem. Even now as I write, I remember them well.

The stage design with the recreated chess area placed in the center, surrounded by arena type seating, was perfect for this play. Although I sat in the front row at the level of the stage, I often felt as if I was looking down on the actors in a panoramic view of the action.

The wealth of information, facts on world politics that enriches the actors’ narrative was extraordinary and the passion conveyed was almost overwhelming. There is a thin line between being profound and being preachy in a play.  I think the first act was truly profound and incredibly clever. Riveting is my adjective of choice.

In the second act, this quality was compromised, due to, I think, the nature of the core material. It was so highly charged; watching the actors unravel, showing what inspired their fanaticism with a game of chess, that it bordered on the preachy side of the divide.

It takes trust of an audience to lower the passion level of the content enough to allow the audience to fill in much of what is presented in explicit terms. If the second act were condensed into less than an hour, this would have brought a more focused and intense experience of the material.

The ambitious Fish Men brings together world politics, Reuben Fine’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the game, the human need to be together – as opposed to playing with a machine – and what informs the fanatic player of chess. Most importantly, this is a play about our need to be together, to talk to one another, to be in the world rather than alone and lonely with only our fantasies to inform our life choices.

Fish Men should be seen by a variety of audiences. It’s perfect for school performances, park productions, perfect for the incarcerated many, and lends itself to a Circle in the Square-type production where people can feel as if they too can play chess, especially those who never have. Chess is, after all, a game, a game of life. And how we play it makes all the difference between life, death and the violent or pacifist-loving ways in which human nature ultimately comes to the fore.

*Reading the Goodman Playbill is an important part of the performance.  Without the Glossary much of the play’s depth is compromised.

– Linda Zises

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** Fish Men at the Goodman Theater in Chicago opened April 7th with performances running through May 6th.

Note: I spoke with playwright Cándido Tirado last week about his experiences at the Chess Plaza at Washington Square Park which informs and motivated the creation of the play. That piece to follow! – cathryn

Washington Square News, NYU’s Daily Newspaper, on Chess Plaza Opening

For readers of this blog who are looking for more “positivity” here, here you go.

Washington Square News, NYU’s daily newspaper, reports on the opening of the SouthWest Quadrant,”Fences Come Down at Washington Square Park,” online today. The writer, Emily Yang, interviewed me — she wrote a well done, comprehensive piece and my viewpoint sounds quite positive. (Tho’, I must admit, my more in-depth comments on the project taking so long or about reduction in size of chess plaza were pretty much left out — another park user fills some of that in.)

I’d never really thought about the difference in dynamic the SW entrance to the park offers until I sat down at a chess table the day the plaza opened at last. The writer asked me what I thought this section opening meant to people who visit the park. Here is an excerpt of the piece:

Our goal was to create a renewed sense of space, with a design that restored and upgraded the significant features that make Washington Square Park an iconic destination for New Yorkers and visitors alike,” [Parks Department spokesperson Phil] Abramson said.

Phase III was expected to be completed by winter 2011. But Abramson said the next phase will begin this spring and last for one year. When completed, it will include a large, renovated dog run and park house with a public restroom and space for the maintenance staff.

Cathryn Swan, creator of the Washington Square Park Blog, said the opening of the new area will bring positive results to the community. But she said this phase is long overdue.

Even though the central plaza where the chess tables are has been reduced a lot in size, this section is an important part of the park,” Swan said.

“The southern end has a different feeling, maybe because people are coming from Bleecker and MacDougal where there is a lot going on,” she added. “So it’ll be nice to have a flow again through the park from there.”

Long-time WSP visitor Vince Marchese, 70, said the fences took away from the beauty of the park for too long.

“I would say it looks like an improvement of about 50 percent,” Marchese said. “It’s a nice place to go to, where things happen all the time.”

He said other aspects of the park, including the cleanliness of the existing public restrooms and how often the fountain is turned on, have room for improvement.

Full story at Washington Square News: Fences Come Down at Washington Square Park

Almost All Fences Come Down and Yet … Chess Plaza/SW Quadrant Not Open

Fence Remains at Entrance SW Corner

Looking South .. Fence Free

Work on Fixing Blacktop Halted?

Chess Plaza Ready for Action ...

Friday (March 2nd), as I anticipated, many of the fences came down on the SouthWest Quadrant (part of WSP Redesign: Phase II-B); work was being done at the park with the opening seeming imminent … but now, everything appears to have halted – again.

Update: Word is this section may open tomorrow!

After 29 Months, Will the Final ‘Piece’ of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II Construction – Chess Plaza – Open Tomorrow?

WSP SW entrance -- will these fences really be coming down at last?

Completion date on sign: "Summer 2011" (Formerly Fall 2010)

The Lonely Chess Plaza




Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase IIB — the Chess Plaza and Southwestern Quadrant — under construction for 29 months (that’s 2 years and 5 months) is more than 17 months behind schedule (that’s one year and five months) from the original scheduled completion date and 9 months behind Phase IIA’s opening (June 2011) at which point it seemed likely it would be finished shortly thereafter.

It is now scheduled to be opened to the public at any moment – perhaps even tomorrow, Friday, March 2nd. At this point, we’ll believe it when we see it!

Depending on whom you ask, it was either the Parks Department’s stalling the project, a lack of any oversight by any governing body, or a problem between the contractor and the Parks Department which led to the monumental delay. Or some combination of all three.

This is what I wrote on June 2nd 2011 when Phase IIA – the eastern side of the Park – opened:

Phase II was scheduled for completion by Fall 2010; then we heard the end of the year (tho’ doubted it), then “Spring 2011,” then “by Memorial Day,” but park goers looked happy to be finally able to stream through the eastern end of the park.

Of course, this isn’t all of Phase II, since, for one, part of it (The Mounds and the Large Dog Run) was moved into Phase III. And Chess Plaza, technically still in Phase II, now Phase II-B, won’t be finished til the end of the month. At least, at last, it’s something!

WSP Blog chronicled the problems back in September 2010 outlining how the city’s parks department caused numerous delays in getting the job done, how the project was over-budget, and the fact that no governmental agencies were providing oversight.

Washington Square Park’s entire redesign – Phases I, II, and III – was budgeted and approved for $16 Million at the onset. Phase I alone — which moved the fountain to align with the Arch, reduced the public space around the fountain, and re-landscaped the NorthWest Quadrant, opened in May of 2009 — cost $13 Million.

Phase II was budgeted at $9 Million but will likely be $8 Million and that’s without the Large Dog Run and Mounds (included in the original figure).

Phase III (rest rooms and administrative building – the new “pergola”) had been budgeted at $9 Million (note – that’s before the cost of the Mounds and Dog Run are added in). Got all that?

Since the Parks Department’s projects continue to be seriously over-budget with no apparent oversight by any governing body, the project by the end will have more than doubled from its approved budget and is now projected for $30-$35 Million in cost.

A review of the finances:

Phase I cost: $13 Million (budgeted at $6 Million)
Phase II cost: $9.1 Million (budgeted at $9 Million but that figure was including the Dog Run and Mounds — both of which have been moved into Phase III)
Phase III: bid came in at “approximately 5.4 Million” according to the Parks Department
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Total projected thus far: $27.5 Million but there is no way Phase III will come in at $5.4 Million so we are at least $30 Million for a project which was approved at $16 Million at the onset.

It should be noted that Phase III contains the piece that the surrounding community and park users wanted completed first – the much neglected and deteriorating rest rooms. The Parks Department refused to accommodate this request; the city agency practically went out of its way to make sure this was completed last in the 3 phases of the project.

Work is presently scheduled to begin on Phase III — which now includes the Large Dog Run, the Mounds, Administrative Building, Rest Rooms and possibly perimeter sidewalks (much in need of repair!) — in April of this year.

At least, at last, the Chess Plaza will finally be opening! Will it be tomorrow? We’ll see…

Chess Plaza – SW Quadrant – So Close & Yet Will It Be Completed This Year?

Off Limits for Oh So Long

So Close... And Yet?

Part of Phase III Now Fenced Off

Even I get a bit tired writing about the status of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II… When I wrote my last post on what-seemed-like-its-imminent-completion on November 10th, I really thought this section of the park – Phase II-B – long-under-construction (amidst prolonged stops and starts) would be open by the end of that month. Now it’s mid-December and it appears just some landscaping and fencing is left to be completed. Work that should not take very long. Certainly the whole job should have been completed soon after Phase II-A opened on June 2nd. And yet, something is very wrong with this taking so long, and, again, no elected official or governing body pays it any attention.

I wonder when Phase III (which also now includes parts of Phase II) will begin. The budget for all three phases is at least $35 Million at this point (initially budgeted and approved by the City Council for $16 Million).

To catch up on Phase II A and B, see this WSP Blog post: Washington Square Park Redesign Phase II-B/Chess Plaza Finally Sees Some Action * Completion by Month’s End? November 10, 2011

An overview of Phase II, the cost and delays here.

What’s happening with Phase II-B / Chess Plaza & Southwestern End Construction? Will it Reach Completion This Year?

Checking in on Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II

September is around the corner and while Phase II-A – the entire Eastern end – finally opened a few months ago in early June; the remainder, Phase II-B, the Southwestern Quadrant which includes the Chess Plaza, is still lagging far behind.

Lately, it looks like the work has stalled. Are the same issues that I first reported one year ago still occurring now? One thing is certain, the absence of oversight by any city governing agency continues.

While neglecting to provide a reason for the prolonged delay, Parks Department spokesperson Phil Abramson pointedly commented that the construction will be finished “by end of summer” which he clarified “is mid/late September.” The Parks Department web site says Fall 2011.

WSP’s Phase II construction: A story of moving parts and roving completion dates

Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase II originally included the entire Northeast and Southeast side as well as the Southwest Quadrant of the Park including the Chess Plaza, Mounds, Large Dog Run and Perimeter Sidewalks.

These last three areas have been removed from Phase II entirely (moved into Phase III) although, all of Phase II, with these sections included, was initially scheduled to be completed by Fall 2010. That date then moved to December (tho’ I doubted it); next came word of Spring 2011. After this, Phase II was split into two parts with the city’s Parks Department reporting that the Eastern end was scheduled to open “around Memorial Day.” That date was pretty close to being realized — Phase IIA opened June 2nd of this year.

Phase II B was supposed to follow a similar trajectory. In April, it was announced that its completion was scheduled “in June,” to follow close on the heels of the Eastern side. However, as the SW section dragged behind, the date changed to “August 8th,” and now, as you see, the official word is end of September.

As a relatively small section of the park, what could be the hold up? Some days there’s barely any work done and yet two Fridays ago, there was much action with numerous workers and multiple trucks (that was the day the trees were removed). At that time, it seemed like the work could be completed momentarily. Since then, not so much.

Will people be able to actively use Chess Plaza again this year? Will the London Plane tree in the Plaza survive?

As you see, questions remain with no concrete answers.

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Coverage Close to One Year Ago at WSP Blog:

Part I – Washington Square Park Phase II: An Eerie Silence – What’s Going On? September 1, 2010
Part II – Washington Square Park Phase II: Lack of Transparency & Oversight Continues September 7, 2010

Phase II Parks Department WSP construction signs — “Working to Improve Your Park” —

Completion Fall 2010

Completion Spring 2011

Summer 2011

Projected Opening for WSP Phase II; Washington Square Again Given Short Shrift by Parks Department and CB2

"Spring 2011" completion now means around or after Memorial Day

We have a date. Or, at least, close to one. Projected opening for the entire Eastern side of Washington Square Park Phase II, currently under construction, is slated for “Around Memorial Day.” That’s the (latest) word from the NYC Parks Department stated last night at a meeting of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee. The agency is now saying “early June” for the Chess area and Southwestern Plaza (tho’ I doubt the Eastern and SW sections will open so close together in time). As I predicted, Phase II is opening in two parts.

Yet again, however, Community Board 2 and the Parks Department paid scant attention to one of the city’s most prominent parks. First, Washington Square Park was listed last on the published agenda of topics to be covered, almost as if an afterthought.

The focus on the meeting was updates on the status of seven Greenwich Village area parks, including Seravalli Playground, Petrocino Park, Minetta Playground, JJ Walker Field, Bleecker Playground & Comfort Station/Bleecker Sitting Area, and the High Line. One of these is only .03 of an acre.

Then, at the meeting, instead of an update presented by designer George Vellonakis or WSP Park Administrator Rebecca Ferguson (neither was present), it was given by Brad Romaker from the Capital Projects division of the Parks Department. Romaker has a disarming honesty that also makes him immensely likable. However, that can’t make up for the fact that he was sent in to the meeting with little knowledge of any of the projects he updated on, other than what was contained on a piece of paper from which he read updates.

As far as Washington Square Park Phase III — Restrooms and Parks’ Administrative Building, which now also includes the Mounds and Large Dog Run (previously in Phase II) — Romaker informed the community that this will go out for contractor bids in May. He said construction on Phase III will begin in “late summer” (I believe this is highly unlikely).

The Parks Department has not updated on Washington Square substantively in more than a year. I question their judgment in not sending someone familiar with the project to update the community and New Yorkers on this historic and landmark New York City park.

This is Part I update on the meeting. Part II to follow Monday, April 11th.

* The Skinny on Phase II Construction and Why it’s so behind schedule.