Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Non-Player Character"

Non-Player Character
Walt McGough
San Francisco Playhouse, Sandbox Series

Devin O'Brien, Annemaria Rajala, Tyler McKenna & Emily Radosevich
As #MeToo revelations proliferate from the worlds of business, entertainment, politics, education, and beyond and as stories continue to emerge of high school and college students being harassed online by jealous and spiteful classmates, the world premiere of San Francisco Playhouse’s Non-Player Character by Walt McGough could unfortunately not be more timely.  As part of its Sandbox Series featuring new plays receiving something more than a staged reading and something less than a full-on, main-stage production, Non-Player Character under the imaginative, cutting-edge, no-holes-barred direction of Lauren English is a new work setting high standards in its creative approach and its compelling, disquieting, and thought-provoking messages.

Devin O'Brien & Emily Radosevich
Friends since childhood, Katja and Trent are now twenty-somethings on opposite coasts who are an unbeatable team in the virtual world of Spearlight Chronicles III -- an online role-playing game where they meet, chat, and play games regularly as avatars.  While not at a local coffee shop or bar, they still have that same back-and-forth habit of finishing each other’s incomplete thoughts, of providing lots of friendly and even heartfelt support, and of just being friends hanging out.  But when they don their online armor, they are an unbeatable duo as they fight a wicked farmer’s Evil Zuchinni, Enraged Rose, or the most dreaded of all – the Pumpkin-Spiced Doom.

Their virtual meetings and battles are astonishingly recreated by a stellar team that Lauren English has assembled.  Jacqueline Scott’s set design, Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s lighting, and especially Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound and projection designs combine with Leandra Watson’s other worldly costumes to put us as audience smack dab in the middle of an online, virtual world that is so real to be both fascinating and creepy.  For the entire first act and some of the second, we only encounter avatars -- some of which are controlled by unseen players and some appearing as NPC’s, a non-player character controlled by the game and not by a gamer. 

But those avatars are in fact very real with deeply felt emotions that develop, grow, and finally want to burst into the open.  It is when a confession of love is sweetly and awkwardly made by Trent’s avatar to Katja’s – a love evidently with real-world roots from their encounters in college – that a glitch pops up in their now exclusively online relationship. 

Emily Radosevich
When not working as a barista at Starbucks, Katja is an aspiring game developer, creating a game based on storytelling versus killing monsters.  Her new life in Seattle has time for work, game design, and occasional online tournaments against monsters.  However in her real-life world, there is no time or desire to have her avatar friendship with Trent (who in reality is back in Lancaster, PA) become what he wants -- a move to her coast in order to be closer to her.

When Katja’s avatar is less than welcoming of virtual Trent’s expressed hope to be more real-world in their relationship, the actual Trent turns to the online gaming community for support and revenge of his hurt feelings.  Via a YouTube-like video, he tells a bitter story of being used by a female who is just looking to advance her own career, no matter whom she hurts along the way.  The vitriolic, anonymous reactions that explode online include language, pictures, and threats that are horrific and scary – all from people who have never met either Trent or Katja but who are now intent on ruining Katja’s life with the same vengeance they use to fight and kill online demons.  And we are witnesses as the play further unfolds to the effects and changes in victim Katja and in perpetrator Trent – neither now any longer avatars in their protective armor.

Both Emily Radosevich as Katja and Devin O’Brien as Trent are mesmerizing to watch as they manipulate and project their avatar selves in the first half of the play.  Both are attractively gawky as they work their way through conversations as avatars -- reflecting some combination of shyness, geekiness, and nervous energy that one might expect from two who are most at home when madly hitting the keys that send their warrior selves to fight the gigantic and deadly threats of a virtual, dark kingdom.  They talk back and forth mostly in spurts, starts, and stops -- often even as avatars unable to look eye-to-eye or to keep their hands from nervously twitching and shaking.

Emily Radosevich
Each of the two actors transforms in Act Two to a real-life person that is often difficult to watch.  Ms. Radosevich’s Katja breaks one’s heart and at the same time raises one’s rage seeing what she is going through due to online attacks that are threatening and damaging in very real ways.  She so realistically captures what we too often read about when someone – particularly a young woman – has become the target of virtual vitriolization.  And Mr. O’Brien’s Trent that we see via room-size videos is now a glassy eyed, smooth-talking monster – more unsettling and scary than the ones he and Katja so cleverly destroyed only a few days prior.

Other virtual and earthly beings inhabit Walt McGough’s new play; but none seems yet fully developed in concept or character while each still has hints of something intriguing.  Most compelling of this lot is Feldrick, an avatar bully who is also part buffoon as played bigger-than-life by Tyler McKenna.  A cross between cave-man and Tarzan, Feldrick is the first hint that there is an underlying gamer culture that is anti-women and just on the verge at any moment to be abusive in attitude and language. 

Feldrick’s sidekick is a slick, high-heeled Morwyn (Annemaria Rajala) who adds some humor as an avatar playing on mute and who also has her own real-life secrets.  But neither her online self or her real-life self (that one portrayed by Dean Koya as Grant) do much to advance the story and in fact are a bit distractive and puzzling in their present forms.

Charrise Loriaux is Naomi, Katja’s Starbucks manager and increasingly, her friend and sympathizer.  Ms. Loriaux’s idiosyncratic and quirky ways of portraying Naomi might work in a different story but seem somewhat disjointed and unnecessary in the present one.

But the strong message of this new work comes loud and clear through the outstanding performances and character development provided for Katja and Trent.  If anyone is at all doubtful that online, anonymous hateful messages are not a real and ever-present threat, consider this.  From just the press release of this play that states that “after a humiliating fall-out, Trent marshals an army of internet trolls to wage real-life war against her” (i.e., Katja), online reaction to the play has included messages (sent by some real person, somewhere) such as “a bunch of f---ts that they are artsy and more educated than other people” and “I’m guessing the play is women and gay men finding stuff straight men enjoy, infiltrating it, and destroying it.”

Yes, San Francisco Playhouse’s world premiere of the virtual world of Non-Player Character is all too real, all too reflective of an online world that is sometimes overrun by unseen, unidentified voices mean and misogynic and whose damage can be real.  This is a new work well-worth seeing and one that, with some further development, will hopefully have legs to play across the nation.

Rating: 3.5 E

Non-Player Character continues through March 3, 2018 in production as a part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, playing at The Creativity Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.sfplayhouse or by calling 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


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