Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
August 13, 2011
Following an acclaimed run at The Brick Theatre's Game Play Festival last year, Theatre of the Arcade arrives in slight disarray at this year's FringeNYC. Whether that is due to changing venues or otherwise, the production more often seems like a random assortment of scenes rather than a unified theatrical work. Accordingly, the play's ambition to blend cerebral minimalism with tongue-in-cheek humor falls flat, with the material more often landing somewhere in between.
The show is split into five mutually exclusive sequences, each re-imagining a classic video game such as Frogger, Asteroid, or Donkey Kong. Within this framework, playwright Jeff Lewonczyk seems to have two objectives. The first, to so thoroughly adapt the games as to obscure them, requiring the audience to pay close attention in order to discover the connection. The second, to pay homage to a variety of theatrical genres, from existentialism to stage musical to a selection of standout playwrights from the past century. While Lewoncyzk succeeds with these endeavors, his efforts do not necessarily serve the story at large. The games’ fundamental aspects (i.e., character and circumstance) are discarded instead of expanded upon, resulting in a tangential collection that fails to gain momentum.
In Theatre of the Arcade, we see a familiar pair of Italian plumbers turned into foul-mouthed Southern drifters in a scene reminiscent of Sam Shepard’s True West. Another scene has an ape-like man smashing barrels and verbally abusing his disabled wife, with an interjection of 1930s-era dialogue and financial straights recalling Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. In another, a pair of aging spacecraft demolition men curse with such embittered regularity that it can only stir memories of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. The radical differences between genres prove more jarring than interesting, however, with director Gyda Arber struggling to establish a throughline.
Admittedly, I came into the show with expectations of seeing what takes place within the video games as they are being played. While Lewonczyk more often chooses to focus on moments outside the games' context, I cannot help but feel that the material is at its most focused when he observes their limitations and creates something new. This is most prevalent in his existentialist take on Frogger, a stark re-imagining of the titular character's all-consuming desire to reach "the green" in the distance, his reluctance in facing death on all sides, and his lamentations at being able to move in only three directions. As the slow journey is made from log to log, his excitement grows, and the audience becomes engaged. In this way the game, as we remember it, is redefined in a compelling and unforeseen way. In contrast, the other scenes deal primarily with the events that motivate the characters to enter the game, or those that follow the game's conclusion. While these are certainly worthwhile areas to explore, they prove too expansive in this production, often lacking discernible dramatic arcs, and making it difficult to invest in the characters.The cast struggles overall, with most reverting to over-the-top campiness. This seems more of a pacing issue, however, as the play's comedic moments often land unconvincingly. The company will hopefully find a balance as the run progresses, and perhaps Lewonczyk will revisit the piece ahead of its next revival to establish greater cohesiveness.