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You Are in an Open Field

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

You Are in an Open Field
Adam Smith, Marta Rainer, and Kevin R. Free.
Photo by Anton Nickel

It may be difficult for old-timers (older-timers?) to comprehend, but video games defined childhood for those who grew up in the 1980s much the way, say, Howdy Doody did for those raised a few decades earlier. So it's not surprising that the kids of then have become adults now without completely shedding their adventure-seeking and pixel-pushing ways. It's exactly this phenomenon that the New York Neo-Futurists' new musical, You Are in an Open Field, which just opened at HERE, strives to address, although it does so in a way that makes you want to insert one or two more quarters to have a more satisfying experience.

The title, in case your computer history is a bit rusty, is the first six words of description that appeared in Zork I, the revolutionary 1980 Infocom text adventure that ignited the serious PC gaming trend. It promises a show much like that game: devoted to exploration, unearthing treasure, and learning more than you expect about the weird and wonderful world you inhabit. Writers Kevin R. Free, Eevin Hartsough, Marta Rainer, and Adam Smith, and director Chris Dippel deliver exactly that, as filtered through the story of three early-to-mid-20s friends (Free, Rainer, and Smith, all playing characters with their own names) who gather together for gaming sessions that catapult them to far-flung entertainment and existential realms.

It doesn't take long for them, and us, to realize that all life is some sort of game, and figuring out the rules is at least half the battle. That's what the trio tries to do as they're tormented by a frustrated actor (Steven A. French) playing a series of subsidiary roles (mostly old-man, quest-giver types) and a white-clad dancer (Cherylynn Tsushima) representing the "boss" monsters, aka the obstacles they each must overcome. Yet every time they think they've constructed a new protective fort (ŕ la Minecraft), someone comes to tear it down, forcing them to rebuild it — and themselves — better and stronger than before. But is that a vicious cycle? To borrow from the 1983 movie WarGames, which these characters undoubtedly know backwards and forwards, is the only way to win not to play?

There are fascinating issues underlying all this, especially when objects of nostalgia are appropriated to comment on present-day mysteries. (An unusually philosophical Teddy Ruxpin and the electronic version of Simon Says prove especially crucial in this regard.) But no one convincingly makes the case for this form of storytelling as the proper communications vehicle: The songs (composed by Carl Riehl, also the onstage musical director) are almost all hip-hop or rap and forgettable beyond their beat; these frequently evolve into freestyling sections, which suggest a more mature form of competition, but the relationship between the numbers and the people blasting through them is never clear.

Musical cohesion occurs only once: After all "dying," Free, Rainer, and Smith sing about the virtues of being able to "Restart" and replay to a tune more than a little reminiscent of the classic Super Mario Bros. theme — with accompanying video (the vivid work of Liliana Dirks-Goodman) that shows just how their brains, like the games themselves, have truly been programmed. There's wit and unpredictability here, and the actors sell it well. The rest of the time, except for French's unnecessary (if amusing) meta-theatrical outbursts and what appeared to be unscripted ad-libs at the performance I attended, they struggle to let their own humor or depth shine through. Dippel's staging is fine, if occasionally slow-paced and scattered (particularly during the interminable fort-building interludes); the makeshift costumes (for whom no designer is credited), which include a pizza box breastplate for Rainer and a dressing gown Dungeons & Dragons robe for Smith, better capture the proper immature sparkle.

Though the show would be well served by focusing its message and loosening its dependence on drive-by name-checking (even Pokémon, which seems pretty far off the track stylistically, gets a shout-out), it is fundamentally effective at demonstrating both what electronic games have given a generation and what they've inspired those once-young people to give back. These titles don't rot people's brains, runs the argument here: They provide a new vehicle for way to expand our concept of the universe, which can be either positive or negative depending on the qualities we provide. You Are in an Open Field could go a lot further with that message, but at just 70 minutes it's an acceptable start. And where else are you likely to encounter a stuffed bear rhapsodize the evening's moral, "We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream"? Preach it, Teddy.


You Are in an Open Field
Through May 19
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street
Performances: Wed 7:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Fri 7:00 pm, Sat 7:00 pm
Tickets online: OvationTix