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March 25, 2008

Theater: ‘Game On’ looks alive

“Game On”: Photo by Harlan Taylor Genesis Oliver and Nicholas Combs star in “Game On,” one of the last productions in this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.(Actors Theatre presents “Game On” through March 30. Directed by Will MacAdams. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.)It happens every March, the ultimate face-off between the jocks and the thespians. Just as sports obsession in Kentucky reaches fever pitch in the form of March Madness, the theater world looks to Actors Theatre as it introduces the best new American plays.This go-round, playwrights Zakiyyah Alexander, Rolin Jones, Jon Spurney, Alice Tuan, Daryl Watson, Marisa Wegrzyn and Ken Weitzman give a sly wink and a nod to the wide world of sports in the form of the anthology “Game On,” written expressly for the members of Actors Theatre Acting Apprentice Company. Energetic and comprehensive, it’s one of the more successful of the anthologies of recent years. Deny it if you will, but we Americans harbor competitive streaks a mile long, and that spirit extends far beyond traditional sports or even ability. The clever social commentary “Eat This,” by Alexander, ventures into the world of competitive eating. In “I Hate Lacrosse,” Weitzman has an ambitious underdog discover steroids at chemistry camp, adding a twist to the classic “revenge of the nerds” scenario. Jones is on a winning streak. His two entries in last year’s anthology were easily the best of that bunch, and he hits two more out of the park with his plays in “Game On,” both of which examine the more rabid side of competition. In “Extremely,” he pokes fun at the crazed enthusiasts of extreme sports. “Chronicles Simpkins Will Cut Your Ass” hilariously unveils a hierarchy of fourth-grade girls, with a foaming-at-the-mouth tetherball champion sitting at the top of the heap.Alexander gets serious in “The Ultimate,” questioning to what level maintaining the status quo will take us. Even if she does hit us over the head with it, the fact we’re still a bloodthirsty society is unnerving. Tuan provides levity with her “Multiball” variations, the best of which imagines Roger Federer’s internal monologue as he plays tennis.   Actors’ apprentices do a lot of work and mainly get paid with experience. This is their opportunity to shine, and some do so with verve. Andy Lutz turns in the best performance of the night as a fanatical extreme sport participant. The appealing Katie Gould is absolutely delightful; Jessica Lauren Howell steals the scene without fanfare; Matthew Sa and Christopher Scheer are pitch-perfect sidekicks; and Nathan Gregory delivers thorough performances. It may seem like a tacked-on addition to the festival, but “Game On” is more engaging than some of the headlining shows. These theater geeks know how to play ball. —Rebecca Haithcoat Sign on to ‘Neighborhood 3’ (Actors Theatre presents Jennifer Haley’s “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” through March 30. Directed by Kip Fagan. Part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.)Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of zombiekllr 14, a teenager’s avatar in an online horror video game, is the center of what is likely one of the best scenes in this year’s Humana Festival. Joined by Kate Hampton as avatar Barbara, the two performers act like programmed vectors depicting digitally simulated characters designed by Blake, a real life teenager, and Barbara, his real life mom. Blake is a zombie-killing, video-game-playing addict, and Barbara is an anxious parent aware of the fact that the only way to communicate with her son is through the game itself. The virtual blends with the real, and the words “game over” take on a deeper meaning.If you have difficulty relating with any of this, you are likely well beyond your mid-20s and in permanent migration to a large amount of digital technology and online lingo. To the young, Internet-savvy native, however, the imaginative scenario in Jennifer Haley’s “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” is in all probability a semi-realistic concern. The assortment of characters played by our two younger actors, Taylor and Reyna De Courcy, range from the fearful kids who have a sense for the perils of Neighborhood 3 to the lost teenagers who have become completely and utterly detached from reality. In each scene we are witness to a different set of parents trying to understand the addiction their kids have to the game. John Leonard Thompson and Hampton both seize the great opportunity that is offered by this play to explore its multiple role changes, but Thompson triumphs. His transitions are impressive and fluid, from a concerned but absent dad into the authoritarian father figure, and then the strange and shifty neighbor.This play is effective in that it deals with all the right issues surrounding what is known as “technological moral disengagement.” MySpace is no longer the only way for kids to create unsustainable personas that do not translate into real life. The paradigm introduced by allowing children to overdose on television is finding new potency with simulation entertainment like “World of Warcraft” and “Second Life.” Set in the Here and Now, this play may not be here to stay, nor is it an indestructible script by any means, but it is quite effective in its staging. It’s a theatrical mash-up of “Donnie Darko” spun with “Dungeons and Dragons.” —Joey Yates