The subtitle of The Pawn, the latest entry in the Shotgun Theatre Lab collaborative series, now playing at the Ashby Stage, is “A Mimed Play About The Games Of Life, Love And Chess.” Mimed it is, but not silent. Eric Klein plays excellently in accompanim ent, mostly on accordion (what often sounds like carny music), sometimes on guitar. The bittersweet comic action plays out on the black and white of a big chessboard (smaller ones are placed here and there), and, except for an offstage belch and a well-pl aced slap, the story’s told without a human sound, though with much expression.
The Pawn begins with a querulous title character (Sean Williford) riveted in consternation to his square, gingerly attempting movement to the left or right, only to be warned off by a blast from the accordion. Onto the board pirouettes a tank-topped Knight (as the program identifies Alex Present, who shows for a moment his Capoeira training), who cartwheels, rights himself,and immediately starts in on the Pawn, who finally st eps one square ahead, to much headshaking and handwringing. Blackout.
The following scenes are all blackout vignettes, and follow the duo through infancy, schoolroom pranks, and the entrance of the love interest (Juliet Huntington, the Queen). The Pawn u sually ends up puzzled, with the short end of the stick. The Knight is like a part of him, angel or demon, evil twin, a constant companion—egging him on, getting him in trouble, standing back and shaking his head.
It’s a storybook overview of growing up and getting on in the world, related back to chess moves stretched out on the bigger board of the stage. What emerges from the quick blackouts is that old-fashioned device, “A Sentimental Education,” though contemporary in its references. The Pawn is like a live theater silent film (indeed, director Stephanie Abrams’ Kinetic Theory Experimental Theatre put on a show at San Francisco’s Exit Theater a couple years back called Silent Movie). Mack Sennett meets Eric Berne? These “Games People Play” are both games and pantomime, with all the charm (and the quick, insouciant gestures) of old-time entertainment with a light psychological touch.
With the Queen’s entrance into a classic soda jerk routine (it could have been Harold Lloyd) adapted to Starbucks, the uneasy duo becomes a threesome, with the musician as the Rook dragged in to comic, occasionally randy, effect. Pawn-meets-Queen, with the Knight horning in, as the late bloomer learns about grooming, comportment, cohabitation and going out on the town.
But no matter how he moves, one step at a time, or what he comes up with, the Pawn’s perplexed—he can’t get ahead of the game. He’s still pushing wood. The others—and circumstance—continually check him. (It’s a funny over-extension of the play’s conceit: a pawn getting checked.)
In the end, it’s literally back to Square One. The bitter, repetitive fruits of experience, a treadmill poetically limned by William Blake in his “Mental Traveler” (which I think Fred Curchak used to do as a solo piece onstage). But the ironies are light enough, the whole piece something of a parody of the old melodramas and pantomimes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There used to be a discrepancy between pantomime and mime, mime being more aesthetically rigorous, ev en abstact, and pantomime a simpler storytelling technique with gestures. This is what Kinetic Theory seems to be up to. Director Abrams’ background is in circus (she was a contortionist); she’s said she wants to explore new combinations of physical comed y, dance and acrobatics.
Part of the charm displayed by the young cast comes from their easy assumption of the old comedians’ stock roles. Sean Williford’s big eyes and mobile face make him a perfect Pierrot. Never-still Alex Present is a cut-up Harlequi n, while Juliet Huntington’s a wide-eyed but game Columbine. These characters trace back beyond Commedia Dell’Arte to the mummers of medieval miracle and morality plays to the original mimes of Mediterranean antiquity. There were a lot of “bastardized” Co mmedia offspring: Punch and Judy, English Pantos, much clown schtick. Kinetic Theory’s field of action, their own chessboard, relates in part to what’s been defined by these predecessors. There’s something of the flavor of a scamp like Charlie Chaplin, a n ingenue like Buster Keaton, or a modern picaro like Marcel Marceau.
After the show there’s a talk-back with audience, cast and director every night. The Pawn is another entertaining entry in the Shotgun Theatre Lab series, helping to develop new theater.
The Shotgun Theatre Lab presents The Pawn, 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays through July 6 at the Ashby Stage. $10. 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org.n