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Merely Players: Updating Theater Can Be Tricky 

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013

Impact Theatre Artistic Director Melissa Hillman is all about making the Bard into one of the bros. Shakespeare didn't write just for the elites; so, she believes, contemporary productions that exclude audiences with, to paraphrase As You Like It's Touchstone, no money in their purses, are doomed to far worse than mere indigence. It can make for excruciatingly boring theater.

As You Like It, Hillman's latest production, with its love story, its cross-dressing, and its wrestling match (no joke), is fertile ground for a populist, contemporary interpretation. And so Hillman adds jokey touches like Franzia chugging, F-bombs, Star Wars references, and a cartoonish chase scene. During the wrestling match, when Orlando (Miyaka Cochrane), oppressed by his older brother Oliver (Mike Delaney), must fight the much burlier Charles (Stacz Sadowski), Hillman makes the tiny La Val's Subterranean Theater into a flashy wrestling ring. Audiences don't just have ringside seats; they'll have to keep feet tucked and faces shielded, so that when Charles smears Orlando's face across the ring's chain-link fence, no one gets stepped or slobbered on.

Much of what makes Shakespeare great are the messy parts of his plays that don't seem like they further the storyline: the double plots, the character arcs that don't get resolved, his poetic monologues and pun-filled wordplay. Hillman is less successful in updating these elements. Shortly after Orlando's unlikely wrestling victory, he and his beloved, Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis), Shakespeare's wittiest heroine, escape separately to the forest of Arden, which Hillman renders as a redneck karaoke bar, complete with renditions of "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." It's populated with a whole new set of characters, all yokels, but Hillman doesn't make it clear who these people are or why they're important to the play, especially the incongruously well-dressed and well-spoken Jaques (Sarah Coykendall), who delivers the famous "All the world's a stage" monologue. Relief comes only when a cross-dressed Rosalind teaches an unwitting Orlando how to woo her while also rendering him verbally useless. In repartee, she is her own best partner. That's comedy we don't need a new setting or an F-bomb to understand.

At San Francisco's Exit Theatre, Triple Shot Productions is targeting elites — elite gamers. Just One More Game, a new romantic comedy written by Dan Wilson, opens with a dizzying array of gaming references — Zork, Street Fighter, Mario, Zelda — during a "quasi-blind date." Dating site veterans Kent (Christopher DeJong) and Marjorie (Linda Ruth Cardozo) are both so relieved to have found a fellow geek in one another — he's a programmer, she's a critic — that, before their first date is over, they're singing theme songs together.

Cardozo and DeJong have excellent chemistry, and with Wilson's dialogue, they talk not just to exchange ideas but to relish the contrapuntal music of their banter. Each of Marjorie's wry, blunt remarks — "Whoever came up with the idea of 'date as job interview' should be punched repeatedly in the genitals" — earns an understated reply from Kent: "I would like to go on the record that it was not me." They are Rosalind and Orlando as gamers.

The best part of this show, however, isn't what happens onstage but what happens above it. Wilson structures the couple's relationship as if it's a video game, and above the stage, old-skool game graphics projected onto a large screen comment on the proceedings below. When Marjorie and Kent make plans for a second date, the projections announce, "STAGE CLEARED." When they go to a bar, the screen keeps track of their stats. A drink brings "+1 charisma" but "-1 intelligence." The relationship-as-game motif will be familiar from the comic and film versions of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and works as theater, too. The animation is a canny comment on the pressure on romantic relationships to follow a narrative of ever-increasing intimacy, to move steadily toward an objective, like marriage or children, that a couple might not actually want but nonetheless pursues with gamer-like doggedness.

The show has as many flaws as it does charms. Wilson's dialogue can be pat, as when the couple resolves a fight with a lesson learned — "I need a little help distinguishing between a minor annoyance and a major trauma," says Marjorie — as if to come full circle for the next episode. And Bahati Bonner's staging is bizarrely inert, keeping the actors glued to their places as if a screen has frozen.

Still, Just One More Game does an admirable job updating a subject covered in love stories since Shakespeare: Adults looking for love on their own terms.

About The Author

Lily Janiak

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