ALAS and Of Dice and Men examine the vulnerability of social bonds | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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ALAS and Of Dice and Men examine the vulnerability of social bonds

Trap Door reimagines its aesthetic for film; Otherworld films a onetime live performance (sans audience).

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As sacrifices go, staying home when possible and wearing masks in public seem like fairly small requests. But as we've seen, when hyperindividualism trumps community, the results can be deadly. 

Two new streaming theater pieces from Chicago companies take very different approaches to examining the social contract. Trap Door, longtime purveyors of plays from Europe that the U.S. regional houses mostly shun, goes back to a favorite collaborator for ALAS, created digitally by the artists in isolation. And Otherworld Theatre, the home of sci-fi and fantasy narratives, examines a group of gamer pals facing rifts in their friendships in Of Dice and Men, which was staged live one time with the actors in the empty venue (more on that later) and is now available online.

ALAS

Romanian-born playwright Matei Vişniec knows about living in exile—he sought political asylum in France in 1987, and since then, most of his work has been written in French. Trap Door has staged five of his plays—Old Clown Wanted, Occidental Express, Horses at the Window, How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients, and The Word Progress on My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True—over the past 15 years. I've seen the latter three, and the common thread for those pieces is a corrosive and kaleidoscopic embodiment of the enduring effects of warfare and genocide. In The Word Progress, the ghost of a slain soldier in an unnamed country that feels very reminiscent of the 1990s Balkans observes, "There are 30 nationalities in the bowels of this earth. But at least we all get along now." 

ALAS is a fragment of a larger Vişniec piece, Cabaret of Words, translated by Daniela Șilindean and directed by Michael Mejia, featuring a cast of 16, from Trap Door local regulars to artists from their sister company, Trap Door International in Barcelona. It's more of an experimental film than a narrative theatrical piece translated online, and as such it's in perfect synch with the entwined strengths of Trap Door and Vişniec; building a sense of fear and paranoia through reiterations of key phrases (some delivered in Afrikaans, Catalan, Italian, and Spanish as well as English), with occasional dashes of mordant wit and raw explosions of primal pain. (Trap Door's love of exaggerated makeup, designed here by the actors, and stylized movement is also present.)

"Alas, country, alas, alas, pain, barbarians, invaders, freeloaders, really . . ." is a recurring refrain in this 20-minute piece, as are blasts of gunfire in the background. Set in an alleged utopia, the clear implication is that we've constructed a notion of freedom and security that depends on shutting out those who are less fortunate. At various points, actors recite a declension: "I fence off. You fence off. He fences off. We ALL fence off."

Mejia favors closeups on the performers' mouths, which reminded me of Samuel Beckett's Not I, which similarly features an actor reciting a torrent of jumbled fragments against the backdrop of an enlarged mouth. It's a hallucinatory and disquieting experience, and Trap Door shows they're as adept at using film to honor Vişniec's visions as they are three-dimensional stagecraft.

Of Dice and Men

Otherworld Theatre rehearsed Cameron McNary's 90-minute drama—a remount of a 2014 play about a group of gamer friends hitting 30 and facing various life changes—via Zoom. Then director James Martineau and the cast of six, plus a stage manager and limited crew, spent six hours in the otherwise empty theater to tape Of Dice and Men as a live performance. (If you're wondering about the safety protocols they followed for the in-person work, the company released an explanatory video on the subject.)

The story intertwines the players with their Dungeons & Dragons characters, with the lines between the worlds nearly erased by the gaming climax. But McNary also gives us a solid Nick Hornby-esque take on friendship and romance. John Francis (Leo Michael LaCamera), the dungeon master and glue for the crew, has decided to move out of his mom's basement, recognizing that "I've become a fucking stereotype of my hobby," and take a job in San Francisco. However, the real dilemma for the friends is the announcement by Jason (Jacob Bates) that he's joined the Marines. (The play is set in the early days of the Iraq War.) This particularly upsets John Alex (Scott Francis Longpre), who seemingly has some qualities in common with his "backstabbing rogue" D&D character and who hates seeing disruptions in what he views as a comfortable life pattern.

The political underpinnings of the war don't really feature with any depth here, but the juxtaposition of the fantasy conflicts of D&D with the characters' struggles away from the dice and giant worms creates a generally satisfying narrative arc. The actors go to town with their D&D characters, especially Sarah Jean Tilford as Durak, a boastful dwarf with an exaggerated Scots accent straight out of Shrek, and Mary-Kate Arnold as Alaya, a "half-elven double princess" who keeps getting killed. (Alaya's nongame counterpart is Tara, John Francis's unrequited love interest.) 

By the end, the crew learns that growing up doesn't require putting aside "childish things," as long as adult relationships make room for big shifts in each other's personal storylines and cultural tastes. As Brandon (Nathan Randall Miller), the husband of Linda/Durak, who far prefers football to gaming, puts it, "Football and D&D have one thing in common. They are both completely and utterly pointless. And they both matter."   v

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