NewFest#039;s Harold#039;s Fall: A cracked-out game of history and chess

by Beacon Staff • April 1, 2009

Imagine the popular children's story, iHarold and the Purple Crayon/i-except that Harold is a cracked-out, homeless artist, and when he draws with his purple chalk, he takes a hit of cocaine. Then pretend that Harold is also the modern-day equivalent of the doomed eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon king of the same name. The result is either the most warped children's historical fiction ever or this year's NewFest winner, George Watsky's iHarold's Fall or King Will/i, which runs April 2-4 in the Semel Theater.

With its wide range of influences and themes, iHarold's Fall/i is a nuanced play that can be appreciated on many levels. Taking place in present-day New York City, iHarold's Fall/i examines the consequences of racial and economic profiling, as well as our relationship to history, all through an overarching metaphor surrounding the game of chess.

In an interview with iThe Beacon/i, playwright George Watsky, a junior, said his goal with iHarold's Fall/i was to create a play that could be recognized for both its surface value as entertainment and its depth as a critique of society.

"I want the audience to be entertained and moved by the story itself," he said. "But I would also like them to grasp the extra layers that I put into it. I want it to be a play that you can appreciate just as a story, but also be something that you can dig into."

William (Monty Cole) is an African-American chess player trying to support his family with chess games in the park-a task made difficult, if not impossible, by the constant presence of the coke-addled Harold (Quinn Beswick), for whom the park is the closest thing to a home. Harold is inventive, childlike, relentless-and incredibly lonely. His only friends are his chalk drawings and his cocaine. In a more fantastical element, Harold's drawings become real-and others see them too. Trouble arises, though, when an angry, racist priest, Tobias (Joe Ruscio), tries to force the men to leave the park.

Most of the play's direct commentary comes from the narrator, a street sweeper who is also a history buff (Evan Rhoda). Since most people probably don't know the details of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, off which the conflict between the men is based, he keeps the audience up to speed with the basics, while also spicing up the script with humorous insight.

Though the themes of the play are weightier, iHarold's Fall/i is actually incredibly funny, mostly due to Harold, who is mercilessly stubborn and lacks any filter between thought and speech (or action) and who Beswick embodies with gusto.

In an interview with iThe Beacon/i, Joe Antoun, who directs NewFest each year, says he wants audiences to appreciate the humor, as well as the play's deeper aspects.

"It's a very funny play. It's not really a dark comedy. It's a dramatic comedy-a drama with humor," he says. "It's got a positive end to it, though it's definitely got elements of tragedy. But there's hope at the end."

As a poet, Watsky is used to performing his own work, but for NewFest he found himself in the position of watching others bring his words to life.

"It's very terrifying because I'm going to be in the audience watching with everyone else. I don't get to remove myself from knowing that the show is going on because when I'm performing, I'm in a different place," he said. "I'm very glad to have that opportunity to be scared because it's something I really want to do."

However, Watsky said he is excited about the results.

"I'm glad that I'm not in it because the actors that are in it are fucking awesome," he says. "I wouldn't want it to be any other way."

Because of the influence of iHarold and the Purple Crayon/i and the importance of Harold's art to his (and the play's) conception of reality, part of the process involved figuring out how to emphasize Harold's drawings.

The play creates illusions by using a combination of effects. The floor is chalk-friendly so that it can be quickly cleaned in the scene changes when Harold's drawings become real. Glowing wires built into the set light up Harold's drawings into a skyline or stage-size chessboard.

Each year, Emerson Stage holds NewFest, a competition sponsored by Emerson alum Rod Parker ('51), that showcases up-and-coming Emerson student work, including a production of the winning play and readings of the runners-up. Often, as with iHarold's Fall/i, readings from the previous year's NewFest are selected the next year, after the writers have workshopped their plays more. In Watsky's case, this is his third full draft of the play. He encourages aspiring writers to take advantage of the feedback that NewFest offers.

"I would definitely encourage people to submit," he says. "There's no point in having a good idea and letting it sit. Just go for it."