theaterofthearcade.jpgThe oft-mentioned Theater of the Arcade recently made its long-awaited return at the New York Fringe Festival. There have been performances all throughout August, and it was supposed to end its run last Saturday. But all shows that weekend were cancelled due to Hurricane Irene, so tonight is everyone's final chance to catch the finest video game-inspired stage production one will find anywhere.

As also noted previously, the production made its premier at last year's Game Play Festival. The brainchild of writer Jeff Lewonczyk and director Gyda Arber, it remains largely unchanged, save for one actor being recast. Otherwise, the five classic games from before are retold in the same, highly unconventional and thoroughly entertaining manner.

Unfortunately, the following is filled with spoilers, especially since figuring out which game is being referenced is half the fun. So I must implore anyone that's remotely interested and capable of seeing tonight's final (for the foreseeable future) showing do so. You will absolutely not regret it. To secure tickets, simply head here.

But for those who require more convincing, or simply cannot attend, please read on.

First we have "Monologue For Single Player", delivered by a lone actor, who offers a metaphysical dissertation on the choices one wishes for in life, to move further along both literally and figuratively. Which are contrasted by the ones that are doable. Hence why Frogger, with its arcane control scheme, was definitely a wise choice.

Truth be told, of all the episodes presented, this first one was by far the weakest, yet that doesn't mean it's horrible per se. It simply makes its point early and clearly enough, but t sticks around a tad bit too long. The only thing preventing it from becoming pure tedium is the strength of the actor assuming the role of the titular frog (who happened to be the lone new face in the cast, who does an amazing job of filling such impressive shoes).

Second is "The Alabaster Nymph", which tells the tale of a poor crippled girl that's trapped high atop an apartment building, and thusly spends much of her time in a fantasy world that's mostly drawn from the aforementioned statue, the last reminder of her mother. Unfortunately, her brutish husband is quite boorish, as well as completely insensitive to his woman's needs.

The biggest issue is his hair-triggered temper, which is the reason why he was fired from the barrel factory in the first place. Another issue is his racist tendencies; when he suspects his wife of having an affair with the plumber on his way up to fix a leak, the brute rolls the last vestige of his former place of employment, while also yelling Italian slurs.

Obviously the game being referenced is Donkey Kong, something that is made immediately apparent. Which is not a bad thing, since most of the enjoyment comes from seeing familiar characters given live in a completely different light. With the most poignant moment being when "Pauline" finally stands up to "Donkey Kong" for being abusive.

Third up is "Der Rundegelbenimmersatt", which is about a rich and powerful industrialist from the turn of the century, one that lacks any moral fiber in his being. Similar to Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, before he learns his lesson, Der Rundegelbenimmersatt is a rotund man that embodies all of man's basic sins: greed, sloth, envy, etc.

Early on we see him ruin the lives of four innocent people, who all band together and extract their revenge by attempting to teach a lesson. Which is achieved by pretending to be dead and spooking him with explanations of how his greed and selfish ways led to their untimely demises. All the while chasing him around the maze-like streets of the ghetto that they call home.

Of all the games retold, Pac-Man is by far the most inventive. Reconstructing a simple action title into a complex tale of pathos is simply genius, mostly how all the game elements are worked into the narrative. The yellow skin is due to health issues, plus his overeating is the vehicle that directs him into the streets, with the "ghosts" depositing food all around, to led him their way.

Best of all is that which ends up representing the power pellet: the sun, which exposes the ruse and provides Pac-Man/Der Rundegelbenimmersatt with the winning hand in the end.

The fourth vignette, "Magdalena, Magellans, Mars", depicts two men whose occupations are demolition experts. Specifically, they fly around in spacecraft, blasting away at bits of rock that post a threat. But due to an edict from the head office, an efficiency expert is brought in, to see which one will keep his job and which one will not.

What we witness are excerpts from conversations the expert has with each men individually. It's clear early on that neither have no love for one another, and more importantly, each has spent way too much time in the stars. This particular interpretation of Asteroids, by drawing inspiration from Glengarry Glen Ross, is genuinely unprecedented.

Finally there's "Savage Of The Heart", a tale of two brothers. The one decked out in red is a real alpha male, but also a total screw up. He lives in a truck, out in the woods, yet is quite content for someone who by all accounts is a loser. The other, who favors the color green, is uptight and conservative, a super straight arrow. Which might explain why he seemingly has his head screwed on straight.

Yet he's also extremely unhappy, due to being dumped by his longtime girlfriend. Hence the desire to bond with his estranged sibling. "Mario" suggests they go out in the woods, where they can't help but bicker like 5 year olds; it's mostly "Luigi", who is not only heartbroken but also extremely bitter and resentful towards his brother. To lessen the edge, "Mario" suggests that they do some drugs, mushrooms to be exact, which sends them on powerful trip of self-realization.

It's discovered that the ex-girlfriend has actually been kidnapped and the squabbling brothers' dad shows up to tell them that there's a whole other world out there, filled with drags and faces in the sky, but the only way they'll get there and save the girl is if they get their act together.

What I just described might sound a tad bit corny, even juvenile, but it is not. Much like with Donkey Kong, there's a real thrill in seeing these familiar characters behave and interact in both expected and unexpected ways. The Theater Of The Arcade has two core strengths. First is the respectful manner in which the source material is handled, yet without the need for kids' gloves.

Lewonczyk, Arber, and the cast really stick their necks out, by defying conventions and shattering preconceived notions, which in turn provides new insight to that which they are celebrating. Something virtually every similar venture has completely failed to accomplish.

Speaking of the cast, they are the element that brings everything truly together. Each actor's performance is simply stunning; I was especially happy to see the return of Stephen Heskett, which had most recently blown me away with BrainExplode! But once again, each performer is an invaluable piece to the overall puzzle.

The following has been stated numerous times already, yet warrants repeating: The Theater Of The Arcade is the gold standard that anyone wishing to explore video games in a different medium, not just the stage, should observe and take home lessons from. Hopefully it will make another return in due time, and furthermore, I'm eager to see what the people involved create next.