Monday, April 30, 2012

There Goes The Neighborhood

Youngblood Theatre puts a few quarters into NEIGHBORHOOD 3

By Russ Bickerstaff
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 Megan Kaminski playing the audience. Photo By Ross Zentner

 

The Premise So the idea behind the play is pretty simple: You've got an artificial subdivision where all the houses look alike and all the families kind of look alike. The kids are playing this horror game on X-Box that uses GPS satellite imagery to scan their actual neighborhood and turn it into a horrorscape environment for a zombie dystopian game. They have to kill people who look a lit like their actual neighbors and relatives and things. . . the lines between game and reality blur in Jennifer Haley's Neghborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. Benjamin James Wilson directs a Youngblood staging of the horror drama that runs at Miller and Campbell through the middle of next month. 


I really wanted to love this play. And while I really liked it, I was still disappointed. 

 

The Overall Play of the plot runs like an actual old-school coin-op video game crossed with psychological horror. It's not a play in acts or scenes to much as gradually advancing levels. And while this is particularly fun to watch for someone like me . . . someone who grew-up hanging out at a  video arcade in the mid-'80s, it's a novelty that never really interfaces with the story on a meaningful level. (And the best video games of the past couple of decades have advanced beyond the numbered-level phase of game composition to something a lot more like traditional storytelling. My personal favorites were the original two Fallout games from Interplay which had a plot structure that would work in any genre at all.) 

 

The idea of a game fusing with reality on a fundamental level is kind of a fun premise. (And while I'm on the subject of personal favorites . . . no one in any genre has ever done the game-becomes-reality premise better than Cronenberg did in eXistenZ. Probably one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the '90's . . . ) Playwright Jennifer Haley does a kind of a brilliant job structuring the premise. The artificiality of life in a subdivision that is part of a really twisted mutation of the American dream is just another end of the artificiality that the younger generation engages in through online video games . . . and seeing that blur together is kind of a clever fusion . . . but it's only kind of clever.

 

Beyond the artificiality-versus-reality theme, the play is covering the disconnect between parents and children in kind of a weak and schematic way. The cast here does a really good job of breathing some life into that, but it feels as paper-thin and artificial as the plot lines in the uninspired games it's drawing its inspiration from. I guess that's where it ultimately becomes dissatisfying. It has the potential to build-up to something much bigger and more profound, but it never quite gets there . . . 

 

The Cast The characters here are archetypes as well. Scott Allen and Mary Kababik play various parenting templates while Evan Koepnick and Megan Kaminsky play various son and daughter templates. Allen and Kababik take lines  that feel very tired and artificial and breathe a kind of life into them that kind of . . . I guess it kind of turns an 8-bit script into more of a 64-bit play, but the parenting archetypes here still feel primitive.

 

Evan Koepnick breathes some life into the pre-occupied son archetype on various levels. This is particularly difficult as the character who can't distinguish between game and reality is really a tricky one to bring to the stage in a way that feels terribly interesting. Koepnick has the kind of stage empathy that makes it work. 

 

And once again, the subtly captivating Megan Kaminsky renders a stand-out performance in an ensemble piece. The archetype she's playing treads the border between hero and villain in a really compelling way. It's probably one of the biggest challenges in the script, but at one point she plays out more or less an entire scene as a character playing a video game . . . and she's able to bring a real sense of drama to the screen with an X-Box controller in hand the entire time . . . she's gazing into the middle distance facing the audience . . .  never actually turning to look to Koepnick for the entire length of the scene. It feels very natural and very artificial at the same time. You know she's not actually playing a game, but the illusion is there. On the other end of the spectrum in a different scene, she plays a daughter confronting her father who is confronting her and it's a very appealing dynamic. The interaction itself isn't all that clever (On the page, it might be one of the worst scenes in the whole play) but Kaminsky manages to bring enough novelty to the rebellious daughter stereotype to make it work. I love the subtle versatility she's showing here. 

 

The Pacing If there's a single big problem with the production it's the fact that the load-time between levels is WAY too slow. And maybe that's because I saw the production when it was just booting-up opening night, but . . . man . . . the pacing gets awkward in places. The set largely consists of big frames with low-res scenic cues on them . . . and as the play advances through the levels, individual frames are gradually cleared. The frame is still there, but the detail on it gets taken down in kind of an awkward way . . . and then, when the pacing  really needs to be responsive to the action at the end, it gets really, really slow because they have to move around the frames for the final levels. The final moment in the play should be toweringly dramatic, but it feels kind of awkward. 

 

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom runs through May 12th at Miller & Campbell Costume Services on 907 South 1st Street. For ticket reservations, visit Youngblood Online

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