Posted by: strugglesome | October 28, 2010

Hate Thy Neighbor: Disturbing Suburbia in Azuka Theatre’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

As Dateline, Fox News, hell, even Oprah would be thrilled to tell you, today’s video games are not for the faint of heart. Nor are they confined to videos and game consoles anymore. No, gory games and escapist escapades are available all over the internet, ranging from dragon taming guilds to World War I simulations and everything in between. At least in the past one had to actually exit the home and enter an arcade to find a machine to use, now any kid with internet access is good to go. Pakman may as well be a gramophone for how relevant he is, no, the kids today demand story line, digital simulation and role play. Frankly, at this point, online gaming for children (and many adults)  is not unlike pornography for adults (and some precocious children), it’s readily available, it’s anonymous, it allows you to connect with your desires in a safe place, you can do it all from the comfort of your living room, and you can eliminate all those pesky bodily fluids that make things so very uncomfortable. It’s virtually consequence free, right?

Well, not so much, according to Jennifer Haley, an emerging playwright and author of  Azuka Theatre‘s season opener, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. A slickly formed mis-mash of scenes and relationships, this play describes the dangers of a fantasy existence as teenagers in a quiet and controlled suburban community begin to confuse fiction and realty while obsessed with an online role-playing game set in their very own neighborhood. In what one character describes as “the best possible use of satellite technology” the game downloads plans of your very own surroundings, allowing you to demolish zombies, and your own personal demons, without ever

having to leave the comfort of your own home. But as the kids grow more and more obsessed with their avatars the boundaries between the game and real life are slashed like flesh up against a pair of hedge clippers, and the body count on both zombies (who, in a frankly obvious move seem to represent the parents) and players alike increases exponentially.

The moral of the story, which is repeated to the audience ad nauseum, is that for the kids the game is more real then the reality they are so eager to escape, and the consequences of a devotion to a digital existence are as inevitable as they are deadly. Though the parents may fear danger coming from the other annoynmous players out there (“they could be a pedophile!” is a repeated line, expressing the fears of the chat-room generation) it is abundantly clear to the audience that it is the kids themselves who are the dangerous ones.  Structured in a series of lightly connecting vignettes featuring different kinds of relationships and conversations, the play moves quickly, zipping along at a brisk if creepy pace. While intended to be a suspenseful horror-play (doesn’t quite have the same ring as horror movie, now, does it?) the disconnected nature of the scenes, each of which feature new characters mentioned in earlier moments, and the ceaseless repetition of revelations about the game and the paranoia of suburbia (“This neighborhood, in trying so hard to deny fear, amplifies it” claims one character, well, duh, it’s not call White Flight for a happy reason) undercuts the tension and derails the horror. Well written exchanges (Haley does have a way with words) and chilling video-game style narration in between scenes (courtesy of sound designer Daniel Perelstein, whose work is as equally excellent as his contributions to Macbeth despite the differences in venue, play and production) work hard to preserve a sense of chilling menace, but the play itself didn’t leave me so much freaked out as thoughtful.

Working hard to combat the unevenness of the play itself, the production does a solid job of polishing the roughnesses in the narrative and text. Set in a perfectly pristine cookie-cutter tableau of house and lawn, strongly designed by Meghan Jones and lit crisply and extremely effectively by Thom Weaver, director Kevin Glaccum’s production revels in the menace of the every day object. The suburban neatness becomes oppressive and confining, and the carefully hung barbecue tools and gardening tools  take on a power all their own. Four actors, Steve Wright, Corinna Burns, Nick Troy, and Kristen Egermeier, take on all the many parts of the play, Wright and Burns portraying various adult figures confused and concerned with their children’s new obsession, while Troy and Egermeier are left at the kiddy table, gaming away and ignoring their parents. While all of the actors are strong and portray wide ranges, Burns is especially able and compelling, slipping between a boozy and willfully deluded housewife, a frazzled woman frantically planning an intervention and a single mother desperate to connect with her child, with skill and affecting talent.

In his 1967 philosophical treatise, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes the dangers of our modern obsession with relating to images and fantasy, declaring “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation”.  Certainly playwright Haley has captured some of that fear in this piece, and through her focus on gaming in specific she uncovers the violence and escapism so easily procured on the internet. If her piece isn’t fully developed or totally effective, at the very least it is pointing out the multiplicity of dangers in our internet and media addictions, and the negative way our artificial lives can supplant and corrode our actual ones. It may not all work out the way it’s intended to, but hey, at least she is talking about something real. And what is theater, if not the lie that tells us the truth? In Haley’s own words, “We believe that imagination creates reality”. Well, given the body count, it certainly does in this neighborhood.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom will be playing until the 31st of October, so if horror movies, trick or treating and slutty costumes aren’t your thing, why not try a more theatrical diversion? Tickets are available here.

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