Former dancer directs opener for arts festival Kathleen Marshall and musical 'Chess' are bold moves

June 20, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The last time Kathleen Marshall was in Baltimore, she was wearing a cat suit. This time she's playing chess.

Well, not exactly playing chess. She's directing and choreographing it. "Chess," the musical, that is, which makes its Baltimore-Washington premiere Friday when it launches the Maryland Arts Festival at Towson State University.

"Chess" is a show with a checkered history. Although it debuted as a successful record album in 1984 and then became a hit on the London stage in 1986, the show flopped on Broadway in 1988.

With lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the former Swedish rock group, ABBA, and a book by Richard Nelson, "Chess" has subsequently been widely

produced, particularly in this country, though it has met with an ,, extremely mixed response. Considering that, Marshall, whose slim physique reveals her dancer's background, comments, "I think it's very brave of the Maryland Arts Festival to do this. I think it's a very bold choice."

But it's not merely the show that's a bold choice. Marshall herself represents something of a brave risk. At age 30, the Pittsburgh native has worked on an impressive roster of musicals, first as a dancer, then as a dance captain -- the position she held when she came to Baltimore with "Cats" in 1990 -- and most recently as an assistant director and/or choreographer.

Her latest credits include working as assistant choreographer on two of the hottest new shows on Broadway -- this season's Tony Award-winning musical, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and the revival of "She Loves Me" that opened to rave reviews just 10 days ago.

"Kathleen has sort of put in her dues as an assistant director and an assistant choreographer, and I think she's on the verge of an important career," says Michael Decker, producer and artistic director of the Maryland festival.

Those dues have also included two productions of "Chess" -- at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars -- in which she served as assistant director and choreographer to her older brother, Rob.

Towson's production is her "first sole venture," as she puts it. "It's great because I get to do a piece I'm so familiar with, but I'm getting a new space and a new cast," she says.

She also feels strongly about "Chess," although she realizes it is its powerful rock score that has kept it alive. "It's a score in search of a book," she admits.

Her theory echoes that of lyricist Tim Rice, who places blame for the show's troubled history on "story problems."

" 'Chess' is sort of always being done, . . . [but] it's been a bit of a mess, to be honest," he said last winter when a revival of his earlier work, "Jesus Christ Superstar," was at the Mechanic Theatre.

In an attempt to solve these problems, its plot, which concerns a chess competition between a Russian champion and an American challenger, has undergone numerous incarnations -- several reportedly mired in confusion.

For instance, Marshall points out, in London the first act took place in Italy and the second in Bangkok. On Broadway, Act 1 was in Bangkok and Act 2 was in Budapest. With the situation in Russia now considerably altered, the time period has also tended to change from production to production.

Marshall's production takes place in 1988. "We wanted to find the most contemporary year that we could in which this situation was still plausible," she explains; "1989 is the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe."

Simplification

But Marshall says the main difference in her version is the simplification and streamlining of the plot. Continuing the work she began with her brother, she has focused on the romantic triangle among the American, his female second and the Russian.

This streamlining is what attracted festival producer Decker to the Marshalls' work. Decker had been interested in producing "Chess" for several years, but until he saw the Paper Mill Playhouse production, he was unable to find a version he felt worked.

"I was just knocked out by the production," he says. "They had a lucid script. They had eliminated a lot of the subplots. They made a decision about what 'Chess' was about. It was very clear -- a love story, a love triangle. [It had] the usual baggage of chess as a metaphor, all the politics, but they relegated politics to a secondary issue."

Although lately Marshall has been working exclusively behind the scenes, she started out as a performer. The daughter of two academics, she took ballet lessons at age 13. Her collaboration with her brother began a year later when Rob, who is two years older, took up jazz dancing. "I'd teach him ballet. He'd teach me jazz, then we started studying together," she recalls.

An English literature major at Smith College, she spent her summers performing with Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera, where she appeared in a half-dozen musicals each summer and earned her professional status in Actors Equity.

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