Leegrid Stevens' The Dudleys! is a profoundly affecting show that I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have seen, especially given its very limited run. I urge you to go see it.
The show opens with a zombie entering the stage and explaining the rules to the audience: "You only have one life. Some of the buttons don't work. You only have one life." This is life—and game-playing—boiled down to its core: simple, unforgiving, and frustrating.
The Dudleys! is part of the emerging subgenre of music, plays and films riffing on 8-bit video games of the 1980s and early '90s (as seen in the Blip Festival, the Brick Theater's recent Game Play festival and Edgar Wright's film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Versus the World). This is easily the best work from this subgenre I've seen. It takes a story about a family tragedy and transplants it into a pixilated reality.
The multimedia play is about the lives of the Dudleys, a Mormon family from a small Utah town, portrayed as an Atari or Nintendo game. But this not a cheap gimmick: this play at its core is about nostalgia glossing over the more ugly elements of the past. And isn't one of the primary appeals of the 8-bit scene nostalgia? Also, some of the most affecting moments in the play are where Stevens and director Matt Torney simultaneously show where real world pain and game-play both overlap and are at odds with one another.
We follow the family just after—and a little before—the death of the family patriarch, Tom Dudley (a versatile and compelling Eric Slater), who's portrayed through the bulk of the show as the aforementioned zombie. It leaps around out of chronological order to various points of the mother and her three children's lives as they try to deal with Tom's death and move on with their lives.
Many of their trials and tribulations—some funny, some serious, and some downright harrowing—are in the form of video game obstacles. When the brothers—Vic and Derek (Craig Bridger and Brandon Bales)—visit their sick father in the cancer treatment center, it's a place teeming with zombies (with hospital gowns) that they have to evade and shoot. Derek acts up and goes on a vandalism spree with his cousin Onna (Wrenn Schmidt), trashing mailboxes and the local Wal-Mart. So, it's portrayed as a game where he has to smash enough things before the cops catch up with him. And at one point, the brothers go off on a mission to Portugal, and their experience there is boiled down to a series of evading irritated locals (their mouths flapping wordlessly) intent on slapping them.
All of these aforementioned sequences—and others—are done via dance sequences in front of a projected backdrop of video game backgrounds over hypnotic and catchy 8-bit music composed by Stevens.
However, not all of the scenes are amped-up video game level recreations: many of the scenes are deliberately banal and low-key, which provides a fascinating tonal dissonance. Seeing the family sit down to a very believable and realistic dinner together, or when the local police officer (a very sweet and earnest Joshua Levine) shyly makes an implied offer to serve as a father figure to the boys after Tom's death, both in front of a backdrop of a pixilated kitchen, keep the show grounded in a firm emotional reality. This style and all of these scenes culminate in a climactic scene so powerful and moving I felt like I couldn't breathe while it was playing. I definitely felt the tears welling up. Don't look at me like that. I'm not a robot.
The ensemble cast is superb. In particular, Erin Treadway hits all the right notes as Tom's widow Clara, trying to fight increasing suicidal impulses and obsessing with religion though being unable to choose one (after being Mormon all her life, she decides she wants to convert to Judaism shortly after Tom's funeral). She seems simultaneously manic and haggard, desperately blathering away about the Bible to her children while completely oblivious to the fact that none of even pretend to listen.
Also noteworthy is Meg McLynn, who plays Aunt Meg, a woman who runs the previously mentioned cancer treatment center who believes that homeopathic remedies, the right diet, and positive thinking could have cured Tom, constantly lobbing passive-aggressive intimations that Clara's negativity is what ultimately killed him.
Diana Ruppe is also spot-on as the youngest Dudley, Sylvia, who's both intelligent and independent yet under the thumb of everyone around her (her mother often uses her as a trump card in her fights with Aunt Meg, and she's stuck in a physically abusive relationship that no one seems to notice). Casey Robinson and David Wylie round out the cast deftly playing various ensemble roles throughout.
Torney's direction and all elements of the design—from the video backdrop to the choreography to the original music to the lights and set—are also inspired. For an hour and forty minutes, you're immersed in this very unreal-yet-all-too-real world.
As I mentioned before, The Dudleys! has a very limited run (there are only three more performances as I post this), so you should make the effort to go see this remarkable show. I can't recommend it enough; it's easily one of the best plays I've seen this year.
The Dudleys! is playing at Theater for the New City on 155 First Avenue Aug 27 at 7pm, Aug 29 at 2pm, Aug 30 at 7pm. For tickets click here.
Always clicking reset,
James "Cheater" Comtois