Mark Briner is currently directing “Chess” at the Tidewater Players, now playing through September 16, 2018 at The Historic Havre de Grace Opera House.
Mark is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University, where he helped establish the student performing group the JHU Barnstormers and served as production assistant to his mentor, Baltimore theatrical icon Laurleen Pratt at Theatre Hopkins. Mark has been active in community, regional, and dinner theatre as a performer, director, costume designer, set designer, producer, and published playwright with numerous awards to his name. His directorial credits include such varied pieces as Chess, Altar Boyz, The Wedding Singer, Evita, Once on This Island, She Loves Me, Fool for Love, Vanities, The Wizard of Oz, the world premiere of his latest play Without a Clue, his Ruby Griffith Award winning Catch Me If You Can, and Dreamgirls, which was produced with a grant from DreamWorks Studios and named Best Musical of 2006 in numerous awards throughout the Baltimore/Washington area. As a performer, some of his favorite credits include Corny Collins in Hairspray, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Capt. Walker in The Who’s Tommy, Lumiére in Beauty & the Beast, the Union Captain in The Civil War, Josh Baskin in Big, and Jojo the sleazy street hustler in The Life. An active proponent of the arts, Mark serves as a member of the Board of Directors for Tidewater Players, the Children’s Playhouse of Maryland, and is a founding board member of Winters Lane Productions. But of all his accomplishments, Mark is most proud to be the father of two extremely talented young people, Hayley, a senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology and most talented musical theatre performer, and Justin, a working voice actor most noted for his role as Izuku Midoriya in the My Hero Academia series on Adult Swim.
For more information about “Chess,” click here.
What is your vision as director for “Chess?”
My vision is to shift focus from the book, the aspect of the show that has always been problematic, and place it on the score, by far its strongest asset. This score is landmark for any child of the 80s with amazing power ballads, some sumptuous neoclassical pieces, and, of course, “One Night in Bangkok,” the last cast album song to receive top 40 radio play. The authors know this too, because they have removed 90% of the awkward book that the New York version was saddled with and allowed their glorious and very capable score to tell the story. This is easy because Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame are deceptively genius in their composition, and when you think about it, all the old ABBA songs were full of character and stories in themselves. They are even better at it here as they string their music together to form one beautiful, elegant, and very unique piece of theatre, aided by master lyricist Tim Rice. I am embracing this opportunity to tell their story through song by eliminating all the unnecessary costume changes and sets that most musicals depend on and concentrating on the music as the focal point of the evening. And I have some amazing vocalists to use to paint that canvas.
Please talk about a few of the wonderful performances in “Chess.”
The story is based around the old cold war chess championships of the 70s and 80s between classic Russian player Boris Spassky and upcoming hotshot American bad boy Bobby Fischer. As if world championship play, cold war politics, and international intrigue wasn’t enough, the composers interjected a woman who comes between them. I first directed the old version of “Chess” in 2009 with Winters Lane Productions in Catonsville and was blessed with a trio of stellar performers to embody Anotoly the Russian, Freddie the American, and Florence the love interest. I am doubly blessed to have had the chance to gather them together again to reinterpret this new piece nearly 10 years later. Baltimore veteran Shawn Doyle (Anatoly) is playing this role for the 3rd time and his nuances and understanding of the music and the character are enthralling to watch. His version of the stirring first act finale “Anthem” is just stunning. Rob Tucker (Freddie) is a powerhouse. He was amazing 10 years ago and to watch him have matured and grown as an actor and singer since then has given him an even more powerful impact on this hard to like character. When I watch him blow his big number out of the water, “Pity the Child,” honestly one of the most impossible songs written for a man, I still feel 10 years later that no one but him can embody this difficult role in the Baltimore metropolitan area except him. It’s just a bonus to also watch him take center and give new life to “One Night in Bangkok.” Barbara Hartzell as Florence was a revelation back then, and even moreso now. A classically trained lyric soprano, no other directors consider her for anything but the old classic roles. But as Florence she reveals a beautiful chest voice and strong range to cover this score that has been immortalized by Elaine Paige and Judy Kuhn, two of the most distinguished belters on either side of the Atlantic. Barbara gives Florence a beautiful warmth and vulnerability as the cold war games played through her two men tear her apart. It’s really been great to see each of these three actors grow in these roles, and with the differences in these two versions, it’s almost like watching them give new life to a sequel. Add on top of that Eileen Aubele as Anatoly’s dignified but put-upon wife back home Svetlana, Terry D’Onofrio as the intimidating KGB agent Molokov, Aaron Dalton as the charismatic but sleazy CIA agent Walter, and Bobby Sullivan as the rock out Arbiter, and its another once in a generation cast, filled out by a strong ensemble of otherwise leads who have embraced this music as I have.
How is the new UK version of “Chess” different from past versions?
To me, it’s like the best of both worlds. They made a big mistake when they brought the original London hit to America and thought they had to adapt the show to a more conventional “American” book musical, which entailed cutting so much of the glorious score to make room for unnecessary and in many instances ridiculous scenes just to introduce a song that already is an entire scene among itself. It was a total misfire except for the one amazing song they wrote for it, the gorgeous “Someone else’s Story.” The only version that has been available to perform here is the inferior New York version, which is why it’s been so rarely performed. So over the last 30 years the creators have reimagined it several times over and this version is the best of all of them. All the old music is restored, all the silly scenes removed, and it is basically a sung through musical now which places the emphasis on the music where it belongs. My vision takes this a step further and presents it concert style, so nothing is slowed down by set changes or costume changes, one scene and song flows into another, and my costume concept allows a more fluid presentation of the score. Oh, and the ending. They really were never so sure about how this story with all this amazing music plays out (and Tim Rice admits to as much in the hilarious liner notes of this new script), so each version has a slightly tweaked new attempt at an ending. So you’ll see a new version. I’ve joked the “Chess” has more endings than “Clue.”
Please talk about one or more of your favorite songs in “Chess.”
This is a glorious score packed with iconic favorites. Andersson and Ulvaeus are musical geniuses and can master any style of music and make it deceptively complicated and complex while sounding so free and easy–just like every ABBA song ever! The standouts for me are all the ones that have been there from the beginning. “Anthem” is so deeply moving, and sounds like it could be one of those old European national songs you hear at the Olympics. In Shawn’s hands, its mesmerizing. “Pity the Child” is a song that has annoyed me in several versions because it’s basically an anti-anthem about a spoiled manchild and why he is the way he is, hysterics wasted on an unlikable character. But with Rob playing the role in a way to make us understand the man and with a voice you cant imagine till you’ve heard him, it’s a piece of mini-theatre itself and definitely stops the show. Florence has several iconic power ballads written for Rice’s wife Paige, so you know they’re the best of the best. My favorite is when Barbara lays into “Nobody’s Side” because no one who boxes her into the R&H heroine mold sees that coming out of her. I’m so proud of her at that moment. But I think my favorite musical moment of the show is the very understated “I Know Him So Well,” sung so elegantly by Barbara and Eileen as the two women in Anatoly’s life. Both have powerful voices and reign them in to give us the chance to hear them slowly unleash them in a song that was recorded by Whitney Houston and her mother on the I Wanna Dance with Somebody album. Having the pleasure of these two women sing that nightly is a once in a decade blessing. And then of course “One Nignt in Bangkok” just takes me back to being a kid again. It will always have a special place in my heart because that song on the radio is what provoked me to buy the original album and begin my biggest and longest musical theatre love affair ever.
Why did you decide to go into theatre?
It was purely an accidental stumble backwards into it. I began life as a fine artist–drawing, painting, the occasional sculpture–and a student of music. Then I attended the Johns Hopkins University for college, and there were no on-campus art courses or outlets whatsoever except the JHU Barnstormers, the student run drama group. I figured what the heck, I knew music, and started getting involved as a music director. Later, I auditioned as a performer, and eventually a student director and costume designer. But the biggest boon was my work study job as the assistant to the most knowledgable mentor I could have ever found, Mrs. Laurleen Pratt at Theatre Hopkins. I learned more just following her around and talking art than I could have ever studied in any program. I picked up so much experience in those years that I would never have had in a school with a drama department. Then a classmate took me to NY for the first time my senior year for my birthday and I saw the original Laurie Beechman production of “Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and it all fell into place. That following spring I was Joseph in a school production and I’ve loved every minute of it since. When I finally branched out as more of a full time director, I loved that I got to pick my favorite shows and tell the whole story from all perspectives. I usually incorporate my own costume designs, which is a real passion if I had a full time ability and shop to create a whoe vision from scratch.. And I haven’t music directed another show since my freshman year “West Side Story” production.