Tuesday, August 14, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Helmet"

Douglas Maxwell's Helmet is meant to be an upgrade of David Ives's Sure Thing, taking the scene-restarting exercise to a more dramatic level. However, with the sloppily physical direction of Maryann Lombardi, Helmet comes across more as a beta-version of a play: there are some nice features, but the aesthetic upgrades are glitchy (actually, they're non-existent in this bare-bones production), the action is choppy, and the play takes way too long to get to the point.

The underlying premise is pretty nifty, though. Sal (Michael Evans Lopez) has run a video game store into the ground, proving once again to his family and his wife that he is a failure. The people who do look up to him are teenagers like Roddy (Troy David Mercier) who hang around all day, living exuberantly in the present or vicariously in their video games. Tonight, Sal's in a particularly grumpy mood and Roddy (a k a "Helmet") is harboring a vicious secret, and their completion of the day is presented as a video game. The actors advance from level to level, dying when they fail to get their needs and then restarting just in time to try a different tactic.

As a writer, Maxwell knows what he is talking about: he quotes from a wide canon of games and has plenty of wry comments to make about them. And he builds to a nice parallel between Roddy's cathartic escapism and the thrill of living in the real world, with only one life left. Even his hokey jokes are more quaint than bad: "I'm a PlayStation, you're a Wii. We live in the same store, but we play different games." But Lombardi seems to have a disregard for video games and clutters the text with a wide variety of grid-based movement that makes the play seem more like body rehearsals in an Alexander classroom than an actual show. Additionally, Lombardi forces the actors to enunciate certain words (like the titles of video games) with exaggerated lilts that not only break the flow, but don't fit the seriousness of certain scenes. The only thing in Helmet that is authentically game-like is a verbal battle synced to the 2-bit sounds of Pong.

The biggest problem with this production is that Michael Evans Lopez doesn't have the energy, chemistry, or connection necessary to play Sal. Troy David Mercier overpowers him in every scene: the "game" has to "cheat" in order to keep his character from dying at the start of Level 1. If Lopez were playing an artificial intelligence, most of which are notoriously simplistic and broken, he'd be in better shape, but Helmet hinges on the actors being, first and foremost, human. Mercier understands this, and has a real arc beneath his otherwise manic actions, but it makes the scene-to-scene progression redundant to watch. My advice? Take this show back to the shop, level up the actors a little longer, and upgrade the production values. Right now, it's not even worth playing on an old-school Commodore.

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