Logan Ellis

It's All in the Game

Review of Non-Player Character, Yale Cabaret

How do you get to know people, and how do you get rid of people you no longer want to know? Vexed questions, in any context, I imagine, but in the world of online video games, where people meet as avatars in digital worlds—as for instance the realm of Spearlight, “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game”—such social interactions become fraught with a new kind of peril.

Particularly when, as the playbill for Walt McGough’s Non-Player Character at Yale Cabaret says, the social is “a simultaneous hybrid of feeds from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, online news and basically anything that has a comment section.” In other words, the characters in this play are “themselves” (whatever that means), and they are player-characters in online games, and they mostly connect via “text” delivered digitally. And when one sunders ties to another, there’s not only a trail of electronic communications, there may also be viral online reprisals.

30724109_10156350677404626_3177577175364665344_n.jpg

For Katja (Rachel Kenney), online life is not only a way to meet virtually with old friends from high school, like Trent (Dario Ladani Sanchez), but also a potential livelihood. When we first meet her, she’s developing a digital environment in which players do things like interact with and contemplate a tree. Not as exciting as offing opponents with gleeful vengeance, but it could find its niche, she believes. Trent has been her dogged supporter and too-shy-to-make-his-feelings-known admirer for years. She is in Seattle, he’s in Lancaster (PA, I assume), stuck in a swamp of arrested development, and the twain shall meet regularly to do battle in various video terrains.

When they join a game that requires a team, Trent introduces a bro from one of those online sites best known for vigorous trolling and toxic masculinity. Feldrick the Barbarian (John Evans Reese), let’s say, is living out a role close to his Id. His pal is the salacious fire witch Morwyn (Alex Vermilion), a person of uncertain gender. What’s amusing here, even if you don’t sample role-play games, is how McGough’s characters are so conscious of their chosen roles in the video environment even as they try to be themselves and figure each other out. The characters, in director Logan Ellis’ production, are rigidly earnest in their purposes, apt to dispute strategy and the kinds of hierarchies the online environment dictates.

One of the repeatedly funny elements is provided by Anula Navlekar as an amorphous range of “non-player characters,” figures generated by the game to aid plot and provide motives. The most fun here is when we’re in the game because, without that focus, these people don’t have much of what used to be called “interiority.”

The love story aspects of the tale, we might say, are old as time, but the twist comes when Trent, given the big freeze out by Katja, takes a page from Feldrick’s playbook and trashes her with posts online. Soon she’s the victim of stalkers who circulate photos of where she lives and doctored images of her bloodied. It’s not just that she’s not interested in an actual, physical relationship with Trent (who dreamed of joining her in Seattle, where she works at a Starbucks), she also may be using her looks to advance her career, and that’s just not fair!

What seems to interest McGough is the battle of the sexes dynamic here, but not much gets delivered on that score. There’s a moment of female-female bonding between Katja and her boss, Naomi (Navlekar), a veritable “non-character” in the plot pretty much denuded of anything but “support-speak.” There’s also a potentially funny moment in which Katja meets the man (Jason Najjoum) behind Morwyn that just becomes an awkward scene in which outrage meets obtuseness.

The projections provided by Christopher Evans and Jack Wesson, the video game animator, are the life of the party, helped along by the Spearlight costuming by April Hickman with props by Alexander McCargar. Rachel Kenney, who took over at the last minute for Sohina Sidhu, who has been cast in the Yale Rep’s production of Kiss, keeps her script in hand but could play a role this straight-forward with both hands behind her back. The rest of the cast, in Cab debuts but for Vermilion, are game, if not quite characters.

 

Non-Player Character
By Walt McGough
Directed by Logan Ellis

Producer: Jason Najjoum; Scenic & Props Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: April Hickman; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama; Original Music: Roxy Jia; Video Game Animator: Jack Wesson; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dramaturg: Alex Vermillion

Cast: Rachel Kenney, Jason Najjoum, Anula Navlekar, John Evans Reese, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Sohina Sidhu, Alex Vermillion

Yale Cabaret
April 19-21, 2018