For fans of stage combat, going to see Human Combat Chess will be like opening a box of Lucky Charms and finding only marshmallows. The Six Elements Theatre production turns several summer evenings in the gymnasium of Christ Church Lutheran into long processions of one-on-one (or one-on-two) battles.
Christ Church Lutheran
Stage weapons are chosen from onstage armories with implements including quarterstaffs, longswords, nunchaku, and just about anything else a medieval warrior might conceivably want. “We have that?” cried one player on Monday night when a teammate called for a length of rope as his weapon of choice.
The conceit of Human Combat Chess is that stage combat is an actual sport, with matches held among teams in a Midwest Combat Chess League. Eight years and six productions since Mike Lubke created the show as a senior project at the University of Minnesota, the world of Human Combat Chess has developed a mythology that mixes purely fictional history with the actual stories of particular teams and players.
Each production involves the enacting of a planned, choreographed match — but there are probably a lot of audience members who don’t realize that, and the ones who do aren’t about to burst the bubble. “This is so weird!” gasped one audience member when a supporting player stepped forward and got ready to rumble. “She was the black queen two seasons ago!”
The ostensible rules of Human Combat Chess are that two teams of fighters face off on a giant board, each player representing a chess piece. Each side’s king calls out the moves, and pieces have to go where their kings send them, although they can argue for particular plays. (“Do you have a preference?” “Surprise me!”)
When a piece moves to attack another, it’s not an automatic win as it would be on a traditional chess board: the pieces need to duke it out for possession of the disputed square. (“Send in the pony!” “I’m a knight!”) When this happens, the board clears and the aggressor selects the weapons with which the match will be fought.
The players go to it with clanging swords, or swinging staffs, or slashing daggers. Nathaniel Neshim-Case directs the overall show, with fight direction by Lubke (who also plays the black king) and help from a dozen additional fight choreographers. Each player has a stage personality, and most have nicknames like “White Rabbit,” “Ronin,” or “Mama Bear.”
The spectacle is something like professional wrestling staged at a Renaissance festival. Jena Young and Kyle B. Decker sit at a raised table to provide commentary, although they’re largely inaudible between the shouts of the players and the cheers of the crowd.
There’s a lot of cross-board heckling, which gets deeply nerdy. There are puns crossing croissant with en passant, and prawn with pawn. (“Your pawn wall is looking pretty shrimpy!”) The pawns, who have a lot of standing around to do, become especially creative. “Are you still mad about the seven years of bad luck,” spat the spunky Brynn Berryhill, “from when you mirrored your opponent?”
Human Combat Chess is a convincingly competition-like mix of thrilling moments and tedious stretches, and as such it’s more likely to appeal to fans of theatrical sports like roller derby than to the typical theatergoer. It does show just how many ways you can stage a battle, which ought to up the ante for directors wont to fall back on tired swordplay or tame fisticuffs. As one spectator who was particularly getting into the spirit of the thing cried out on Monday night, “We demand innovative violence!”