If “traditional avant-garde” can be said to exist, SITI Company’s Chess Match No. 5 is it. In the spirit of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, the play uses its two characters more as flat stand-ins through which various ideas can be voiced than as rounded, human individuals. There are faint suggestions of a relationship between them, but no details are fleshed out; instead, they exist on stage solely to speak their thoughts. The dialogue, taken entirely from interviews with John Cage, is arranged by Jocelyn Clarke to create, if not a story, at least the shape of a developing conversation. We see and hear the anonymous interlocutors discussing music, art, Surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, and other topics while they perform the everyday actions of playing chess, listening to the radio, and making toast and tea.
The action on stage seems to echo (literally) one of Cage’s best known ideas — that the ambient sound in a performance space is as important as the written music itself; his infamous 4’33” is not meant to focus the audience’s attention on silence, but rather on all the other sounds that occur in the concert hall. In this play, we begin to hear the seemingly incidental sounds of the characters sweeping the floor, moving a chair, or allowing a phone to ring — along with the truly incidental sounds of an audience member coughing or shifting in her seat — as parts of a larger musical arrangement.