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THEATER REVIEW Non Playing Character
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-04-24

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Playwright: Walt McGough

At: Red Theater at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: RedTheater.org and 773-935-6875; $22. Runs through: May 18

In the 100th-anniversary year of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, playwright Walt McGough invites us to consider the ease with which real-life toys can be repurposed to create monsters, much as an incendiary once associated only with holiday fireworks became the deadly substance we now call "gunpowder."

Our fable begins with Trent and Katja, former high-school comrades in rural New York state who bonded through their communal enthusiasm for online role-play games featuring horticultural battles against marauding vegetables and homicidal flowers. Katja has relocated to the Northwest territories to pursue a high-powered career in high-tech communications, however, leaving her nerd-buddy to brood in melancholy solitude rendering him vulnerable to the influence of websites like "TenClick" favored by likewise isolated males whose sexist piggery quickly escalates to full-bore incel warfare after Katja declines Trent's proposal to share in her good fortune.

McGough's fictional scenario is based on a true story, the facts of which may be found under the headline "Gamergate" and its affiliated commentary, but our author is not content with mere talking-heads docudrama. Instead, he maps out his procedural within the fantasy universe where it transpires. Savvy theatergoers will detect early indications of the gratuitous gender-linked hostility that will later blossom into lynch-law psychological terrorism ( e.g., when Tank-avatar Feldrick, after Mage-avatar Aria refuses his challenge to kill an innocent bystander, proceeds to casually axe-murder the hapless civilian )—but when a crime is "imaginary," what recourse does the victim under psychological attack have?

A narrative dynamic occurring predominantly on a computer screen makes for a stage picture in constant motion, whether depicting a tree assembled from flat-shape collages, a swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery skirmish with stick-puppet icons, or a swarm of angry posters descending on their prey like wolves taking down a deer. Director Beth Wolf and an ensemble of actors and technicians ( in particular, projection designer Alberto Mendoza and fight/movement choreographers Chris Smith and Maureen Yasko ) ensure that every second of the 90 minutes needed for McGough to deliver his lesson on the scourge of cyberbullying remains coherent and comprehensible to audiences of all ages, both net-fluent and gaming-illiterate.

The playbill doesn't include a glossary, by the way. Theatergoers unversed in nerdspeak ( like me ) are advised to bring a teenage interpreter or consult your wiktionaries. Watch out for trolls.


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