Friday, March 26, 2010

Figueroa's 8-Bit Warrior

Fun Retro ‘80’s Comedy At The Alchemist

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Vince Figueroa’s 8 Bit Warrior has been a comedy that I’ve been looking forward to for  while. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what I expected but the premise sounded interesting. What little had been released about the show early-on sounded like fun, though. It’s a huge relief that Figueroa’s comic tribute to the pop culture of the 1980’s didn’t suck. It’s an even bigger relief that the show ends up being a great deal of fun in spite of numerous flaws.

Charismatic, young actor Rob Maass plays Will Davies—a high school kid whose self-esteem is intimately tied to his mastery of Donkey Kong. Anne Graff LaDisa plays Becky Walsh, the beautiful girl who wants to be his girlfriend—and would probably do so if she could ever pry him away from the coin-up Donkey Kong at the local pizza parlor. Matt Kemple plays the new kid in town . . . a cocky guy who just moved to the Midwest from California who isn’t that bad at Donkey Kong himself . . .

Figueroa’s script draws a lot of its charm from an apparent love of John Hughes films. Not being a huge fan of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club or Ferris Beuller, a part of me was expecting to cringe through much of the show . . . thankfully, Figueroa;s appreciation for the late director’s work translates really well to the stage. If anything, the schmaltzy sentimentality of the classic 1980’s coming-of-age comedy has a kind of immediacy to it onstage that it lacks behind a glowing screen.

Rob Maass is exceedingly good at rendering a character with some depth onstage without compromising the comedy. As his nemesis Jesse Stackhouse, Kemple does most of his best work simply looking like a high school villain in a 1980’s coming-of-age comedy. Costuming, posturing and cocky line delivery give the character all the depth he needs. Sketch comedy group Broadminded’s Ann Graff LaDisa holds down the emotional end of the play remarkably well almost entirely on her own. The character she’s playing here is quite clearly a tribute to every character Molly Ringwald ever played in the ‘80’s. Having the character show-up at a Halloween party dressed as the actress is one of a few endearingly clever bits of unspoken comedy in the show. Her interest in Kemple’s character prompts a Rick Springfield reference that I really should’ve seen coming . . .

LaDisa does a really good job of bringing a realistic, intelligent, fully fleshed-out female element to the play that provides a great deal of depth for the production. Her look is a perfect rendering of the era right down to the make-up. And some of the ‘80’s fashion she sports here is thanks to costuming work by Broadminded’s Stacy Babl, who blessed the production with a perfectly preserved prom dress from nearly two decades ago. It’s little elements like that—the little bits of the ‘80’s that help make this a lot of fun even when the rhythm of the comedy falters a bit.

Much of the rest of the cast has fallen into very characteristic ‘80’s film comedy roles quite effectively. Lee Rowley gets some really good lines and delivers them really well . . . here he’s playing Will’s friend Tony. Beth Lewinski is perfectly centered as Will’s mother. Her portrayal of the traditional ‘80’s comedy film mother makes it to the stage with comic precision and a sense of subtlety that’s a lot of fun to watch. Tyler Kroll shows similarly inspired precision in a variety of awkward, comically goofy adult roles that help flesh out the ‘80’s comedy feel of the show. Jenna Wetzel makes a memorable turn as the sexy sex-ed teacher. It’s a stereotype that probably never actually showed-up in an ‘80’s coming of age comedy, but along with all of the rest of the cast, Wetzel’s comic performance here fits-in perfectly.  

The ‘80’s pop cultural references are all a bit jumbled—and they get a bit tedious in places, but they never slow the overall comic rhythm of the show. Things also falter a bit during scene changes . . . which actually move along pretty quickly, but linger just long enough to slow things down a bit. Mood transitions between scenes sometimes feel a bit stiff. The idea of having staged puppet renderings of classic video games onstage is clever, but they feel a bit clunky in places. This is particularly jarring during the Donkey Kong face-off at the end of the comedy. That being said, the video game segments are still a lot of fun. Possibly the most accomplished of the staged video game renderings was a surprisingly accurate Duck Hunt complete with perfectly-timed sound effects and music. It may not have the name recognition of many of the rest of the games from the '80's, but it seemed to have a far bigger reaction from the audience than any of the other games represented in the show.

It’s not terribly deep, but it still manages to be just a bit ambitious. And though it doesn't always quite accomplish the comic mood that it’s trying to achieve, 8-Bit Warrior is a great deal of fun. It’s well worth a trip to the Alchemist.

8-Bit Warrior runs now through April 11th at the Alchemist Theatre.

 

 

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