A version of this article originally appeared
in Hyperallergic on July 21, 2010.
Video games appear to be making oddly pervasive cameos across fields as varied as architecture, art (1, 2), cinema, criticism, and now theater. Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage is exactly that, a series of five plays that Jeff Lewonczyk wrote and Gyda Arber directed at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg through July 25.
The premise of Theater of the Arcade is to take the characters from an iconic video game - let's say Frogger - and insert those characters into a world that operates according to the logic and stage vernacular of an equally iconic 20th century dramatist - let's say Samuel Beckett a la Godot: so, the meaninglessness attempt to get anywhere significant using anything, especially the arbitrary ability to move back and forth or side to side. The result, at least for the first few minutes, is a startlingly suggestive scene.
The technique yields a broad range of results. An uncomfortably misogynistic Donkey Kowalski Kong [videogame] comes home to a crippled Princess Wingfield and destroys the Alabaster symbol that is her one source of happiness. Pac Man is recast as the antagonist in a didactic, anti-capitalist Brecht-and-Weill-styled musical. Asteroids becomes a Mamet-like display of profanity and chauvinism that culminates in both corporate down-sizing and seduction. And then, of course, we have our lovable, immigrant plumbing duo unclogging their father issues and throwing psilocybinin induced fireballs over the same princess-like lover in a mode that feels both familiar and contemporary, but nowhere near as notable, iconic, or instantly recognizable as the others. Perhaps this lack says more about contemporary theater than anything else.
Each piece stumbles onto several jokes - a consequence of having to justify the presence of things like giant fruit from Pac Man's labyrinth in Brecht's world or invent some narrative reason to splinter the asteroid belt to smithereens and dust. The silliness and the pace of the plot (or the "arrangement of incidents" to get Aristotelian about dramatic structure) is more than enough to carry an audience through all five, lighthearted pieces. Arranged discretely, the experience even mimics the way a gamer might spend a few minutes wandering from machine to machine, complete with a bathroom break in the middle. Still, it might be more provocative to see what an effort to stitch them all together would look like, or how the five pieces could hang as a unified investigation into both the importance of interaction and the assertion of agency to the two genres (How about a combination of Minesweeper and Augusto Boal? Tetris and Tony Kushner?).
I don't want to get ahead of myself, though, Theater of the Arcade is one cockeyed option in a curio cabinet called Game Play: A Celebration of Video Game Performance Art that's full of intriguing collisions between the virtual and the theatrical.