nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 17, 2011
Before I can share my feelings with you on Virtual Solitaire, Dawson Nichols's one-man show out of Seattle now playing as part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival, I must first set the stage for you—or rather the lack of it. The stage is bare and painted black. There are no sound cues to speak of other than the old jazz tunes that open the production. Nichols enters barefoot and bald-shaven, wearing a black T-shirt, a black pair of loose shorts and some virtual reality headgear that he will lose about five minutes into the first act. There are, in fact, no costumes to speak of, until you really get a look at him. Something's not quite right. Then you realize he's got on contacts that completely block out his irises, turning the whole of his eyes into massive dilated pupils. Now, sit back and prepare to have your mind blown.
Nichols published his first version of Virtual Solitaire in 1997, two years before The Matrix made its indelible mark on pop culture. Where Hollywood most often turns its tales of virtual reality into grand showcases of special effect and spectacle, Nichols takes the exact opposite approach and strips it bare. His focus is upon how online technology has isolated us even as we turn to it again and again searching for connection and community, meaning and escape.
Nichols’ central character, Nathan, is a virtual reality junkie who has spent so much time living in online scenarios, he’s lost track of what is real and what is not. Nathan’s a skilled player with a troubled past, which makes him an ideal candidate to help two technical scientists calibrate character emotions for a new online game. Unfortunately, he’s been virtual for so long, his circuits are frayed, sending the experiment into the virtual minefield of Nathan’s own memories along the way. Nichols effortlessly morphs from one character into the next, sometimes via a passed gesture, but always through a clear, concise understanding of exactly who that particular character is at any given time. In what I can only describe as an exquisitely tuned performance and astounding feat of self-direction, Nichols completely inhabits a bevy of characters throughout.
My only complaint, if one is to be had, is that the story itself at times gets a little convoluted. We, as the audience, do not always know what is part of the game scenario and what is Nathan free-forming off the sphere. As a reviewer, I was the lucky recipient of a copy of Nichols’s play, which I promptly sat down to read to see if I missed anything. I didn’t pick up a lot of new information, though it was a little clearer to me in places where Nathan may have dropped into a different level of sub-reality. Perhaps some of those moments could be made clearer in future incarnations with slight changes in lighting.
A professed note taker, I was stunned after a two-hour performance to find I’d hardly written a thing and had instead spent most of the time watching with my mouth agape. After bows, Nichols addressed the audience. He explained that in spite of performing this piece off and on for over 10 years, this was his first performance in New York and didn’t know anybody in town to invite. On his behalf, I am inviting you to Virtual Solitaire. Bring your real life friends and your virtual ones, too. As Nathan might opine: “It’s copacetic.”