Sunday, July 18, 2010

Game Play Festival: "Theater of the Arcade" and "Modal Kombat"

Photo/Hope Cartelli
If video games aren't art, Ebert, then they certainly inspire it: they're a rich part of our culture, and just as they've grown from two-bit Pong to multidimensional Super Mario Galaxy, so too have they grown on the stage. Last year's Game Play Festival--hopefully an annual occurrence at the Brick--featured a faithful staging/parody of old Infocom text-based adventures (Adventure Quest). This year's centerpiece is Jeff Lewonczyk's Theater of the Arcade, which not only creates hilarious backstories for five classic games, but pitch-perfectly matches them--aided by the solid direction of Gyda Arber--with the distinct styles of famous playwrights. (So many possibilities for future installments, too: Chekhov's Arkanoid, Ianesco's Joust.)

Part of the fun--and that's important to recognize: these shows are a delight--is trying to figure out what game is being parodied, so oblique are some of these stories. But even on their own, the five one-acts that make up Theater of the Arcade are a blast. For instance, the plaintive struggle of "Monologue for a Single Player," in which a suspendered, black-hatted man in tattered pants (Robert Pinnock) attempts to reach a thumb-sized patch of green, oppressed by his limited range of motion, yet waxing philosophically on it ("You cannot undo forward, you can only do backward"). Frogger, Samuel Beckett, but more importantly: easily relatable, this world in which the promise of a restful lily pad merely cues another level, endlessly so. (In modern meme terms: "The lily pad is a lie.")

By the way, "Monologue" is probably the weakest of the bunch--which is not an insult, so much as a recognition of how terrific the rest of the pieces are. "The Alabaster Nymph" is a cleverly obfuscated tale, in which a jealous, hairy, brute of a husband named Joe (Kent Meister) loses his job at a wooden-barrel factory and takes it out on his fragile wife (Shelley Ray) and the "dego" plumber in their building, whom Joe fears is coming to steal his wife away, the only thing a dumb lug like him's got. (Right, it's Donkey Kong done by Tennessee Williams.) But even the readily apparent ones have plenty of laughs: for instance, "Savage of the Heart," features red-and-green-shirted brothers Marv and Lou (appropriately alternated each performance by Josh Mertz and Stephen Heskett). As they try to reconcile their past with beers and mushrooms in the middle of the desert, they are visited by the specter of their Old Man (Pinnock)--and by the "princess" (Ray) they both love. (Yes, Super Mario Bros. meets Sam Shepard.)

The two breakout hits of the night, though, are "Der Rundegelbenimmersatt" and "Magdalena Magellan Mars," both of which feature scene-stealing performances from Fred Backus. In the first, he plays a circle-chested and rather orotund capitalist who heartlessly fires his employees: a pretzel-factory worker (Mertz), his mistress (Hope Cartelli), his poetic secretary (Stephen Heskett), and a farmer (Pinnock)--all because he hates art, loves younger women, and treasures money above all. Musical interludes and direct addresses follow, as the workers plan a Christmas Carol-like trick against their boss, luring him into a "maze of slums" with a trail of fruit, and dressing up as ghosts (with eyes that last forever). There's a neat backhanded twist of an ending, but it's otherwise clearly a send-up of Pac-Man, courtesy of Bertolt Brecht.

It's Backus's misogynistic second role that will probably warm the cockles of most young audiences. Two workers--the smug, assertive go-getter (Backus) and the somewhat reserved old-timer (Meister)--are told by their boss (Heskett) that only one of them's going to walk out of this room with a job. An icy efficiency expert (played to the hilt by Cartelli) is going to identify which of the two demolitions experts isn't properly finishing the job out in the belt. Mamet's always been a highly quotable playwright, and Lewonczyk gets many gems out of this homage, from "punch his cock so hard it turns into an asshole" to the mock-philosophy of lines like "People are the vector on which failure travels." (There's also a melange of uses of "fuck," tons of clever repetition and non-statements like "Why we do what we do?") Even if you were to miss the spinning-in-circles references and the "Shooting from one side of the screen to the other is for fags" dis that mark this as Asteroids at its finest, you'd probably still have a blast, and that's the joy of Theater of the Arcade.

Photo/Lori Deemer

Modal Kombat, on the other hand, isn't really a work of theater, so much as it is an intriguing performance piece. Like Lewonczyk, the self-effacing duo David Hindman and Evan Drummond love their old-school games: in this case, "Pong," "Mortal Kombat," "Tetris," and "Mario Kart." But they also love playing their guitars. Their happy medium, then, is "Modal Kombat," in which guitars are mapped to classic controls and used to actually play these games--while, theoretically, making music. In truth, the music is achieved by looping a track, and intermittent chords are what follow, but there's something hilarious about watching Sub-Zero and Scorpion flail about as David and Evan strum up a flurry of punches.

It's all very silly; David's right when he says that "these games have no business being played with instruments." But it's also unique as hell: when the audience gets roped into helping rotate the pieces in a game of "Team Tetris," they practically turn feral in their support of this wonderfully useless bit of art. How can one not applaud the sheer effort that goes into their version of "Guitariokart"? One wishes that David and Evan had more of a stage presence--they mainly disappear behind their effects--as their hour-long show feels a bit thin. As a variety act, though? It's a total nerdgasm.

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