nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
June 6, 2009
In the hearts of most overgrown children like myself, there is a very special place reserved for DOS-based adventure games of the '80s and early '90s. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, adventure games were all predicated on a simple premise: you are the hero, and you have a quest. The quest involves moving from screen to screen, gathering items to help you, and solving puzzles in order to advance the story. This may not sound like much, given what's possible in computer games today, but back then, it was a completely immersive experience. Going into Adventure Quest at the Brick Theatre, I was filled with nostalgia for these kinds of games. However, from the outset, Adventure Quest reminds you (or if you are uninitiated in the ways of adventure games, introduces you to) just how unbearably frustrating these kind of games were.
This, however, is not a bad thing for the play. It is, in fact, ingenious. Adventure Quest uses the frustrating and limited nature of these early adventure games as an existential metaphor for the futility of existence. The play focuses around the central character of the hero, who arrives at the gates of the town of Perilton and finds that the mayor's daughter has been kidnapped by the evil octopus cult, and it's his job to save her. Fairly standard quest material. However, over the course of his adventure to save the mayor's daughter, the hero begins to question the quest he's on, the actions he's taking to achieve goals, and the very nature of who is. The hero of Adventure Quest is some combination of the pixilated hero of the game "Adventure Quest," and us—the kid sitting at the keyboard, typing in commands for the hero to obey. Part of what was so frustrating about these games is —as the person playing the game—you were allowed to type in commands freely on the keyboard, but the hero would only obey very specific commands. The freedom of typing in commands was only an illusion; in the end you had to fit into the rigid commands of the game. So it is with Adventure Quest—and it becomes an apt metaphor for life, and the invisible walls that surround us without our knowing.
That being said, Adventure Quest is also a lot of fun. Playwright Richard Lovejoy has a great time in the early part of the piece playing with the hilarity that ensues as part of the inevitable frustration of these sorts of games—the strange logical leaps, the inability to do the simplest things, the two-dimensional nature of everyone you interact with. Director Adam Swiderski does an especially good job of realizing this last aspect—the physical landscape of these two-dimensional characters acts as wonderfully stylized and hilarious counterpoint to the hero. As the play goes along, the tone becomes more serious and desperate, and both the play and the direction handle this shift well. But though the concept (by Lovejoy and composer Chris Chappell) is phenomenal and much of the play is great, the script is occasionally heavy-handed, and could do with some judicious tightening and editing. Though the play only runs an hour and fifteen minutes, it does feel long in places.
However, the ensemble do give energetic, winning performances all around, especially Kent Meister as the hero and Sarah Engelke as the fraught peasant girl. The art by Jamie Melani Marshall, as well as Marc Borders and Jim Hammer's costumes set the scene beautifully, and the original music by Chris Chappell is pitch-perfect with the style of the piece.
In the end, Adventure Quest leaves you feeling frustrated, confused, desperate, and highly entertained in the best way possible—like a good day-long gaming session or a play by Ionesco. So come for the nostalgia, stay for the soul-shattering existentialism, and go home questioning the little walled universe you've set up for yourself. Though the play in its current form may need some work, going to see Adventure Quest is definitely something to be done.