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One Night in Bangkok
Beacon College philosopher Zachary Isrow performs “One Night in Bangkok” in the Melon Patch Theatre production of “Chess.” Photo credit: Cindy Peterson

By Darryl E. Owens

Siam’s gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
This grips me more than would a muddy old river
Or reclining Buddha
–“One Night in Bangkok”

A French proverb observes that “You cannot play at chess if you are kindhearted.”

Not a problem for Freddie Trumper.

A champion at chess, but a loser at polite society, Trumper side-winds through life racking up the wins and the moolah and treating those in his orbit like pawns.

Lousy roommate material, sure, but an intriguing character study and theatrical vehicle for Beacon College philosopher Zachary Isrow that drove his return to the stage and his community theater debut as part of the cast of “Chess” during its recent run at the Melon Patch Theatre in Leesburg.

“In some ways, I never left” the stage, he said. “Come watch me teach and you’ll see what I mean!”

Performing is in the blood of the assistant professor and humanities coordinator.

From his youth, Isrow conjured small performances for friends, family, and neighbors. That passion later led to professional engagements.

Calling it “a wonderful show,” he said he was drawn to “Chess” because of the show’s level of “difficulty [and that] it is very rarely performed, even at professional levels.”

Chess premiered in London at the Prince Edward Theatre on May 14, 1986, according to Concord Theatricals website. The complex rock musical — with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of the Swedish supergroup ABBA — later premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on April 28, 1988.

Set in Budapest, Thailand, and JFK Airport between 1956 and the 1980’s, “Chess” employs the ancient strategy game “as a metaphor for romantic rivalries, competitive gamesmanship, super-power politics, and international intrigue,“ according to Concord Theatricals.

It continues: “the pawns in this drama form a love triangle: the loutish American chess star, the earnest Russian champion, and a Hungarian American female assistant who arrives at the international chess match in Bangkok with the American but falls for the Russian. From Bangkok to Budapest the players, lovers, politicians, and spies manipulate and are manipulated to the pulse of a monumental rock score. …”

Most are less familiar with the musical than its breakout song, “One Night in Bangkok,” which soared to No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1985.

Given how rarely the show is mounted, Isrow found irresistible the opportunity to play Trumper.

One might think it a stretch for an erudite thinker to pull off a boorish character whose life philosophy less resembles Rene Descartes “cogito, ergo sum,” (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) than Daffy Duck’s “Consequences, shmonsequences! So long as I’m rich!”

But Isrow nails the egotistical twit.

“Oddly enough, Freddie came quite naturally to me,” he said. “I have a lot in common with the character (ambition, determination, etc.), and drawing on that, it became easy to channel it into something different (anger, aggression, etc.), which is simply another way to respond to ambition in order to get what you want.”

In flipping the script, Isrow noted that “ultimately it was simply a different response; Freddie has a different way of expressing his ambition (a not-so-great way) than I, but the drives are fairly similar. I think this is true of most characters you can find. All characters are driven by similar forces, the difference is simply how they act in response. Acting is so much about taking those ‘universal’ drives, passions, etc., and determining how your character would react/respond to them.”

Once the curtain comes down on this production, Isrow hopes to produce some showcases of music/songs that he has written with his writing partner Marianna Raho, the music director for “Chess,” as well as a staged reading of a new musical for which they’ve penned the music. And don’t rule out another star turn on the stage next year, he said.

“I love being on the stage,” he said.