Friday, June 26, 2009

At The Antidepressant Festival: Adventure Quest

Note: Be forewarned that this entry on the play, Adventure Quest, contains some (very) minor spoilers.

If Beckett ended up writing and designing those DOS-based adventure video games from the late-80s and early-90s, he'd probably give us something like Adventure Quest, Richard Lovejoy's play that starts as a send-up of this very specific subgenre of old school gaming and (deliberately) devolves into a meditation on the pointlessness of existence and the thin gruel of choices life has to offer you. It's a funny, bleak and (for those of a specific age group, of which I'm part) nostalgic romp.

In Adventure Quest, Kent Meister plays an unnamed hero on a quest to save the mayor's daughter from captivity, a variation on the done-to-death "Save The Princess From The Evil War Lord" trope. In order for him to move forward with the quest, he has to say (instead of type) commands like, "Talk to Beggar," or, "Climb Rope," and discovers through trial and error which commands are the correct ones to say (he occasionally tries to offer commands like, "Piss on Beggar," and a disembodied voice (Alley Scott) well tell him, "You Cannot Do That," or, "I Don't Understand").

The way the voice responds to the hero's more inappropriate commands is also very funny: I particularly liked one instance where, completely at a loss as to how to proceed, gives the command, "Stab Self With Knife." The voice's response: "Things Aren't That Bad Yet."

The irony about these types of "explorer" games is that there's no hope of any real exploration. Despite being given the appearance that you can type in any command and go anywhere in the game's world, you have very, very narrow parameters that allow you where to go and what to do. There are only a handful of houses in the village you can enter and only a couple rooms in the castle you can wander into. You have to ask very specific questions to characters you meet in order for them to respond. You can't move forward unless you do exactly what the game wants you to do. This isn't adventure; this is bureaucracy.

Adventure Quest deftly portrays this (in one scene, quite literally, when the hero has to wait to make an appointment in a reception hall) as the hero moves along, realizing his interest level in the quest at hand has shrunk down to zero. He really wants to bang the peasant girl (Sarah Engelke), a minor character he ran across during the course of his adventure. The disembodied voice calmly threatens that he'll be sorry if he doesn't complete the quest. But what else can he do? The more he progresses, the answer is clear: nothing. Absolutely nothing. (Even killing himself results in the game just resetting back to where he last saved the game, not unlike Phil's fate in Groundhog Day.)

Everyone in the cast and crew, which also includes Danny Bowes, Anne Carlisle, Lovejoy, Timothy Reynolds and Jesse Wilson, is excellent. As director, Adam Swiderski does a marvelous job creating the show's aesthetic and sense of place and style. Within seconds, you know exactly what type of game Adventure Quest parodies (this is also of course due to Lovejoy's script). The cast's physicality is also pitch-perfect: they way they move and talk instantly reminds you of two-dimensional pixilated video game characters (a prime example is Lovejoy's beggar, who vaguely bobs his head and arm back and forth when the hero isn't talking to him, and Reynolds' cemetery man, who's hands are in constant "beckon" mode).

Kudos must also be given to Marc Borders' and Jim Hammer's costume design, Jamie Marshall's rear screen projection graphic design and Chris Chappell's original computerized musical score for making the show look, sound and feel like an old school video game.

I think my only criticism of Adventure Quest is that the script could benefit from a few judicial cuts: it feels about 10 minutes too long. To be fair, the play deliberately demonstrates the redundancy and tedium in the hero's quest, so it's a very fine line to evoke tediousness and repetitiveness without being tedious and repetitive, a line the show succeeds at walking 99% of the time.

Adventure Quest is a funny and sometimes unnerving demonstration of how life is often like a video game: frustrating, endless and constrictive.

Adventure Quest is playing at the Antidepressant Festival and later the Game Play Festival, both at the Brick Theater on 575 Metropolitan Ave. in Brooklyn. Tickets for this are going fast, you you should get them here soon.

Stabbing random passersby in frustration,

James "Restore Button" Comtois

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