Any doubts you may have about the athleticism of this year’s Human Combat Chess players are put to rest before the pieces even line up on the board.
If you arrive early, the warm-ups are a show of their own. I watched Ethan Jensen, a curly-haired White Piece enforcer, balance himself against the wall upside-down with one arm. I watched David Elwyn, a Black Piece with a spy villain getup, tumble across the chessboard and engaged in some playful (but frighteningly precise) hand-to-hand combat with fellow Black Piece Chase Mabson.
Even beyond the 15 hours of rehearsal required for each fight, even beyond the six years Six Elements Theatre has been putting on Human Combat Chess, many of these athletes have been at it a while.
Elwyn is a fourth-rank in Kai Shin-style Japanese swordsmanship, and hosts a podcast about theatrical fighting; Callan Korpi, who played the queen of the White Pieces, is certified as proficient in seven weapons through the Society of American Fight Directors. I could go on and on.
Human Combat Chess is exactly as it sounds: a chess game, using real people as pieces, with square captures done via duel. The kings pace the game boards, wielding clipboards — hey, the swordplay might be the main draw, but a chess game also must happen. It does, caps tipped to classic chess maneuvers.
Fight director Mike Lubke said there has never been as many fights as there are in this year’s edition, and the dedication is evident in the final product. Do you want elegant, artistic swordplay? They’ve got that. Do you want floor-shaking, artistic brutality? They’ve got that, too. Darwin Hull (a bearded giant, the most recognizable of Six Elements’ faces) is given a big ol’ broadsword and he swings it right out of the starting block. Hull sets the tone for the night marvelously.
Not every move brings a fight, of course, but the actors do a good job keeping the board interesting between clashes. Some taunt, some stand with menacing glares, others engage in awkward group hugs, and Eleanor Sampson twirls her braids like nunchuks on occasion. Forget conventional arms: if she figures a way to install blades in those things, watch out.
The action flows well between displays of prowess and displays of pure power. Even the imperfect fights look well-rehearsed. None of the actors or actresses look like they were holding their weapons for the first time. The commentary was amusing, but didn’t interfere.
The cast leaves it all on the chessboard. It’s all in good fun, but make no mistake: these folks(‘ characters) are genuinely out to hurt each other(‘s characters).
Human Combat Chess runs through May 7. Find more information at Brown Paper Tickets.