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Chicago by John Olson

Fish Men
Goodman Theatre Co-production with Teatro Vista

Also see John's reviews of The March and The Rainmaker

Fish Men
Mike Cherry, Cedric Mays and Raúl Castillo
If you live in New York or have ever visited it as a tourist, you've likely seen the area in Washington Square Park with all the chess boards. It's a real place, and Collette Pollard's realistic set for this in-the-round staging is surrounded by projections hanging from the balcony accurately showing the park's Arch and skyline shots of the views opposite and to each side of it. Cándido Tirado's new play opens on five of the regulars in this corner of the park: three hustlers, one casual player, and one who never plays but watches and hangs on anyway. During the first five to ten minutes of the play, these characters engage in the sort of banter that leads us to believe we will be viewing a realistic, Mametian exploration of American machismo. Tirado starts in that direction but his eventual destination, which I can't reveal without spoiling the many twists and surprises, is someplace symbolic and philosophical, and arguably not very realistic at all.

The hustlers include two African Americans, PeeWee (Kenn E. Head) and Cash (Cedric Mays), and the heavily accented immigrant "Russian" John (Mike Cherry). The casual player is a middle-age Native American, Jerome (Ricardo Gutierrez), and the observer is an elderly American Jew nicknamed Ninety-Two (Howard Witt). In this opening milieu establishing set-up (which goes on longer than it needs to), the men complain comically about the historical atrocities committed against their various peoples. The range of ethnicities represented feels so contrived it must be deliberate, and as the play unfolds we see that it is. But more on that later.

Into this group of regulars enters a newcomer, the young Latino professional Rey Reyes (Raśl Castillo), looking for the chess player who lent money to Rey's uncle to cover the uncle's gambling losses to the hustlers the previous day. Nicely dressed in a business suit, Rey seems a well-mannered and uncomplicated young man, though based on a cell phone conversation with his girlfriend, is possibly suffering from a gambling addiction. Waiting for his uncle's creditor Stuart (Daniel Cantor), Rey begins an innocent game with the benign Jerome, but before long is seduced into taking on the hustlers.

As the play progresses, we see that Rey is not so uncomplicated, but it would be wrong to say any more about him in this review or to explain the significance of the title. Part of the fun of viewing this highly entertaining and thought-provoking play is to approach it like a chess game—to try to anticipate the author's next move and imagine the consequences of that move. One of Tirado's early twists is easy to predict, most of the others not so much. By the time we reach the denouement, the play no longer seems particularly plausible, but it's engrossing nonetheless in its suspense and unpredictability. Fish Men's ultimate message—urging reconciliation and acceptance of past wrongs, no matter how heinous—is compelling and uplifting. While earthy and entertaining, Fish Men is deeply humanistic.

And that's about all I'm going to say, except to praise the cast and the direction by Teatro Vista Artistic Director Edward Torres. Torres establishes a rhythm for the fast-talking hustlers, keeps the speed-chess games compelling, and manages changes in tone both sudden and gradual. He and his actors deliver a cast of distinct and colorful characters who are theatrically big but based in reality. Among the hustlers, Mays creates a complex character of the brainy PhD program dropout Cash, Cherry plays Russian Jack with an amusing macho swagger, and Head delivers on-target comic relief. Gutierrez gives Jerome a reality that transcends his stereotypically Native American "harmony with nature," and even if the Ninety-Two wise old Jew is a familiar type, Witt explodes our expectations with a powerful monologue late in the play. Castillo carefully and slowly reveals Rey's secrets and ultimately keeps us riveted to his every move. Fine support is also provided by Cantor as the slumlord Stuart and Gordon Chow as an Asian-American proctologist.

Tirado is reportedly a master chess player and he plays some brilliant moves here. Some will argue that Fish Men's improbable plot twists and exploration of genocide make it manipulative. Maybe it is, but I found it a wild and entertaining ride to a conclusion I want to believe in.

Fish Men will play through May 6, 2012, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, call 312-443-8300 or visit the Box Office.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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