Gene Valendo wears many hats for 2nd Star Productions. He’s the group’s treasurer, he’s acted in 19 2nd Star productions since 2012, produced two shows, and is now the chief set designer and the set builder (and an actor) for their latest production, “Chess, the Musical,” which features music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA. Since October, Valendo has been working on turning the Bowie Playhouse stage into a massive chess board that is the center of the show.
He told The Capital how he came to be the piece that made “Chess” possible.
Tell me about “Chess.”
The idea is loosely based on the early 1980s time period and on the chess rivalry between Bobby Fischer of the United States and a couple of Russian players. “Chess” takes place during two consecutive world chess championships. Because it was the height of the Cold War, everything during that time, whether it was political or not, took on political connotations if it was between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Because it’s a musical, there’s a love triangle that I don’t think was part of the real-world Bobby Fischer story. Because of the political aspects I alluded to, there’s a larger chess game going on between the KGB and the CIA… They are manipulating their own chess pieces — the players, the players’ families and girlfriends — to achieve their own ends. Without getting into any spoilers, Alexander Molokov, the character I play, who is the head of the Soviet chess delegation, is more than he seems.
Where did the idea for this set come from?
The basic concept for the set came from director Mickey Lund. He told me he wanted a giant chess board raked from front to back to rise 15 inches. Beyond that, he wanted a raised platform in the back, two sets of steps from the raised platform to the raked stage, and masking flats on the sides. It then fell to me to take that vision and fit it to our stage, work out the structural-support issues, and overcome the obstacles of the space. The chess board, in particular, was challenging. The raked design means it’s a raised platform but it’s not raised very high, so you can’t get underneath it once it’s in place. The support structure was very complicated because not only does it have to fight gravity, it has to be strong enough to hold its own weight and carry the weight of 15 performers. Additionally, it has to withstand the lateral forces that are generated by 15 performers moving, walking, dancing. That was further complicated by the fact that I had to lay out the chess board on the sheets of plywood that form the floor. I had to do the whole thing in a space that wasn’t big enough to lay things out, on a floor that wasn’t level. Transferring the pattern from piece to piece to piece was a long and painstaking process.
That sounds like a lot of math.
I’ve been woodworking as a hobby for a long time. Of course, there’s a lot of math involved in building furniture and knick-knacks and whatever. Fortunately, I paid attention during geometry class in high school. Doing woodworking over the years brought back a lot of what I hadn’t thought about in a long time from my school days. I started woodworking in my late 20s. I just decided it would be something fun to do.
Was painting the set just as complicated?
Oh, yes. Because the stage is rigged and because we wanted to use gloss paint on it, I had to mix grit into the paint. So the first step was to prime the plywood with white paint, then mix the grit into the gloss floor paint to paint all the pieces white, then start the layout for the board which also has red and black squares. The grid complicates the process because you can’t simply tape off a line and then paint. The tape does not seal well enough to keep the paint from seeping through the little gaps created by the grid so black paint would creep into the white paint. To counter that, every time I wanted to paint a black square I had to tape off the edges of the black square, paint those edges white so the white paint would seep into the white paint, what for it to dry, then paint it black, wait for that to dry, peel off the tape, then go back with a tiny paint brush and touch up where it seeped in anyway. It was a painstaking process.
How did it all come together inside the Bowie Playhouse?
Since the 27th of December, I’ve basically been living at the 2nd Star shop. But it’s in. It’s looking good. The whole thing took about three full days to assemble.
While the chess matches are going on in the show, as the characters are moving the pieces, the other actors are on the chess board making the movements of the pieces. The chess board really is an important element of the show. The actors are the pieces. The cast members in the ensemble are mirroring the moves.
Woodworking prepared you to build the set. What prepared you to play Molokov?
I started doing theater in high school in 1970. I did a few shows after high school, then I joined the Navy for 25 years. It was a big help in playing Alexander Molokov. My first 8.5 years in the Navy I was a Russian linguist. So my mouth fits very naturally around the way a Russian speaks English.
Anything else audience members should keep their eyes and ears tuned for in the show?
The voices and the orchestration. This show really is all about the music and the lyrics. It is essentially a rock opera. The music really is the whole basis of the show. It’s all about the music.
See for yourself
“Chess, the Musical” runs Jan. 25 to Feb. 16 at the Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive. Tickets are $22 for general admission, $19 for seniors (60 and over) and full-time students, and $12 for children 11 and under. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee on the closing Saturday.
Go to 2ndstarproductions.com or call either 410-757-5700 or 301-832-4819 for tickets and more information.