August 31, 2010 12:00 AM | Matthew Hawkins
[Pixels On Stage is a new not-so-regular GameSetWatch column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that will highlight the ever-increasing convergence of video games and performance art. This first entry takes a look at a unique 8-bit specific stage production that has just wrapped up its first run in New York City, called The Dudleys!]
Reaching the end of its very first limited engagement run in Manhattan later this evening is the off-Broadway play The Dudleys! Subtitled "A Family Game", The Dudleys! is the brainchild of Leegrid Stevens and has been described as a look at the adolescent memories of a young man through a glitchy 8-bit game.
In fact, before the play even begins, Stevens inserts a cartridge into the NES that's placed at the foot of the stage, to "start" the proceedings. And the memories in question are centered around the death of devoted husband and father Tom Dudley, along with the effect it has on the rest of the family.
First we have the two Dudley boys: Derek, who suffers from a classic case of youngest child syndrome, and Vic, the eldest son whose memories fuel the game. There's also middle sister Sylvia, who has the most promising future but is accident prone. And rounding out the immediate family is Clara, Tom's wife and mother of the aforementioned children, who ends up exhibiting the most pronounced aftereffect of her husband's death.
The entire family was devoted to the Mormon faith, but Tom's passing causes her to look for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere, specifically Judaism. A decision that sends shockwaves throughout the rest of the clan.
Derek ends up taking it the hardest, since he was forced to become a missionary in South America. Something that his other siblings also had to engage in, but his stint in particular ended prematurely due to an injury. And his inability to fulfill the obligation, despite the circumstances surrounding it, is something his mother constantly gave him grief about, so for her to nonchalantly give up the faith is practically the straw that breaks the camel's back. Which manifests itself as acts of vandalism. Not doing much better is Sylvia, who is willingly involved with an abusive boyfriend, despite the fact that she is adamant about women's issues and exhibiting other traits are that are "not typical" to battered women according to Vic. All due to the fear of losing someone else in her life. As for Vic, even after his father's death, he must contend to what a disappointment his father was. In addition to being "too soft", he was also extremely gullible.
Case in point: it's revealed that the real reason why there was no money to send Derek to college, despite the other kids being able to attend school, was due to because the set-aside funds was squandered on a failed business venture. One that everyone but Tom could have seen was fraud miles away. Hence Tom's sister, Aunt Meg's theory that the family practically wanted their head of the household to perish, due to embarrassment and shame. She tried curing Tom of his cancer via non-traditional means, at the makeshift clinic at her home where she looks after others with similar life-threatening ailments, via the power of positive thinking. Which obviously did not work, and the blame once again is placed on the family for impending her efforts, by "poisoning" Tom's mind, leading to even more family drama. Meg also has a daughter, Onna, who is also angry at mother, but for completely different reasons.
To a certain extent, The Dudleys is your typical family melodrama, one that deals with familiar territory: along with the aforementioned crisis of faith are ones relating to identity, unfulfilled expectations, as well as misguided ones, coping with the ugly truth, and loss of course. The key difference here being that everything is wrapped in a NES-like package. Every scene is presented as a different level of a game, with game-like elements liberally applied (much of it iconic; there's random flashing boxes with question marks, a la Super Mario Bros, littered about).
These environments on stage are actual 8-bit graphics, projected behind the actors. For the most part they simply help set-up the action; before each scene we get a notification ("Level 4-2: Dinner World") along with a score and life count. Yet they are somewhat interactive, such as when Derek and Onna ride around town, smashing mailboxes; when Derek's real bat swings around, when it makes "contact" with a pixilated mailbox, we get a little explosion.
Virtually every one of these elements are called up on the spot, according to the actors’ performances and not the other way around (which among other things, could have been a disaster). They also help to punctuate the dance numbers, which are primarily driven by an original soundtrack composed via a Game Boy, Commodore 64, and NES.
For the most part, all the game-like elements are original, with the exception of the aforementioned references, though actual NES games play a minor role as well, such as the original Final Fantasy and Mike Tyson's Punch Out. Often because that's what Derek and Vic are playing at the time of some pivotal moment of their lives. Though we are regularly reminded that we are watching a game being played and which the participants are somewhat controlling the action.
At one point, in order to spare themselves yet another boring dissertation from their mother, the guys erroneously use the Konami code to grant her 30 lives, which she loses spiritually during the course of the play. Again, the game we are watching is supposed to be out of whack; at another point, the action becomes so glitchy up that the director is forced to interrupt the action and blow air into the cartridge before hitting restart. Ultimately, the video game motif is somewhat unclear and inconsistent, but never to an offensive degree. In fact, my biggest fear, that it being just a simple story with video games needlessly overlaid is not the case here, thankfully.
Another relief is that the story is never preachy or heavy-handed, despite the topics touched upon being so. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when the show was over with and I was spared the clichéd examination of what the Mormon faith was all about; we get only bits and pieces that matter, at least for someone in the middle of the events portrayed. Though what makes the play so enjoyable is the stellar cast; everyone, primarily the core family members, do a wonderful job of breathing life into their characters.
Stand outs include Brandon Bales as Derek, who demonstrates the kind of frustrations that is universally relatable, Dianna Ruppe as Sylvia, whose goofy demeanor is impossible not to fall in love with, and Erin Treadway who delivers the most touching performance of all as a wife who tried her best to stand by her undeniably flawed man till the very end. Eric Slater, who is credited as Dead Tom deserves a special note; for the most part he's constantly hovering each scene, as an undead soul, and acting appropriately ghoulish. Which makes the latter moments of the play, in comes alive (literally) as the world's nicest guy and seemingly the perfect father all the more poignant.
Overall, the production is exceptionally tight; the 8-bit aesthetic is utilized sensibly, to the point of become an effective method of addressing a primary issue consistent with all off-Broadway productions, that being the usual strained resources as it relates to sets in general. Certain elements could have been pushed further, but they would have been too distracting perhaps. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that I originally saw The Dudleys! late last year, during a dress rehearsal.
And over that time, the play has been clearly workshopped and streamlined, though to a fault in certain aspects. Perhaps my memory serves me wrong, but I recall events being even more out of order. In the end, the current iteration makes the action easier to process, but my attitude is, if you're going to have something be out of order, go for the gusto. Though this is hardly a concern for anyone seeing the Dudleys! for the first time.
Yet, there is still room for some improvements: the aforementioned occasional dance numbers were cute and all, but still a tad bit too long and too in love with the form, and could definitely be either shortened or simply featured stronger choreography. A somewhat related issue is how Meg's inability to cure her patients nets zombies, that she must constantly blow away with a shotgun in most scenes she’s in. The symbolism is cute (i.e. constantly being reminded of and tormented by her failures) and certainly fits within the narrative structure, but the joke eventually wears out its welcome.
With the burgeoning intersecting between the world of performance art and video games (hence the reason why this column has been established in the first place), I can easily see traditional theater goers going ga-ga over this easy to swallow and easy to process introduction to the world of game culture (there's even a section on the homepage that explains chiptunes).
But will gamers be enthralled? Yes, provided it’s the same ones who are open to new forms of expression and interpretations of what they love. And as evidenced by the ever increasingly popularity of chiptunes and the much heralded (well, at least my some, not everyone) Scott Pilgrim movie, I'm willing to bet that we're going to see more and more examples of video game theater, with The Dudleys! going down as one the first best examples.
(The Dudleys! was playing at the Theater for the New City in New York, as part of the Dream Up Festival. Check out the play's official website for more information on it and any subsequent plans for it.)
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]