Monday, April 8, 2013

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom - A Modern Fairytale

By Brad Quinn
Photos by Elisabeth Ross
Jeff Emrich as Steve and Avonique Tipsword as Chelsea
Iowa City - You've missed the first weekend performance of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. Don’t panic; there is still one more weekend left to see it. You may wish to go see it on Friday night, so that you can go back and see it again on Saturday night in order to catch some of the things you might have missed the first time.

When you sit down in the theater, you’re confronted by a very simple set. Two black flats with a white screen between them, and three black acting cubes. As you will discover, this is more than enough to draw you in to the show. Once the lights go down and the show begins, a very different kind of staging emerges. There are ten scenes, each of which has a different set which are photographic backgrounds projected on to the white screen. Ominous music plays underneath each scene, sometimes mixed with video game sounds. The lighting is harsh and white, mainly projected from the rear sides rather than the standard front and front side projected lighting common to most productions. A narrator in a suit (John Crosheck) steps forward and begins to speak, but he is not your standard narrator. He doesn't tell you anything about what has happened before, or what is about to happen, or who the characters are, or anything you might have come to expect from narration. Those in the audience who are video game aficionados will recognize it as something known as a walk-through, a set of instructions set down by video game developers or players who have completed a game to help new players through it. The effect of all of this is to give the audience notice that we are now in a video game world.

The video projection is a particularly good choice for this show. There are ten different scenes, each of which would require a different set, and by simply projecting a new background and changing the cubes around the transitions are done quickly and easily. It works because what we are watching is supposed to be a projected reality anyway. The lighting reinforces this feeling as well, giving a further sense of unreality to what you are watching. The one problem with the lighting style is that it often leaves the actors faces in shadow, which is generally not something you want to do. Most of the time the actors were able to find their light, but there were several occasions where faces were totally lost in the shadows. The music also played well into the altered reality of this show. It was tense and unnerving, although occasionally it became a bit too loud and threatened to overwhelm the actor's speaking. Fortunately, every single actor knew how to project and it was rarely ever an issue to understand their dialogue.

Each scene consists of a dialogue between two characters. Unfortunately, most of those characters are never seen again outside of their scene. This is not a story about the characters, but some of them are interesting enough that you wish you could see more of them. The very first scene is a good example of this. Both Rex VanDorpe and Becca Goldknopf Anderson (as Trevor and MaKaela) do an excellent job of portraying awkward teenagers. You want to see more of how their relationship unfolds, but we never get to see those characters again.

Jilly Cooke as Ryann and Brian Tanner as Doug
We then progress through nine more scenes, each linked by the narrator (or Association Representative as he is called). We learn a little bit more about the story from each dialogue, and with every step are led just a little farther down the path of horror. A common theme begins to emerge: the parents are struggling to connect with their kids. They live in a world of material wealth and privilege, where the solution to your child’s problems are to give them more stuff and more freedom instead of establishing boundaries and limits. They tend to turn their heads and pretend nothing is wrong rather than confront the problems head-on, and instead of the children seeking the parent’s approval, the parents seek their children’s approval. A commentary on the problems of modern parenting if ever there was one.

The kids, for their part, are trying to escape the world of neighborhood associations and cookie-cutter houses they live in. To them, the adults all appear as zombies who are, in effect, holding them back by the combination of excessive permissiveness and expectations of conformity. They know something is wrong but they just aren't sure what it is or how do to deal with it. So they retreat to their game, a game which seems to have real world consequences.

Rachel Hittner as Janna and Serena Collins as Madison
There is a large cast, and it would be difficult to give each of the actors justice for their work in this show. I can't say there was any weakness in the cast, which in addition to the adult veterans also contained some promising young actresses who are actually teenagers playing teenagers. This is an adult show with adult themes, and kudos to the parents of these young ladies (Jordyn Ann Chomcycia, Jilly Cooke, Rachel Hittner, and Serena Collins) for letting them be a part of it, and to the actresses themselves who clearly took their roles seriously and held their own against the older cast members. Each actor had very strong moments. In particular, however, I strongly advise taking note of a couple performances.

Joseph C. Anderson has an excellent turn as Tobias, a clearly disturbed man who seems to be disconnected from reality and yet also possesses a better understanding of the strangeness and horror going on around them than the other adults. His performance will leave you creeped out and wondering just what will happen before the scene ends.

Ryan Morrow as Blake/ZombieKllr14 also has a standout performance. He is one of the few actors who gets more than one scene, and his first scene is both funny and horrific in turn. Although it contains one of director Jason Tipsword’s only missteps (in my own opinion, of course) by playing much of the scene in the aisle, forcing at least half the audience to turn around to watch it, it also has one of the best moments as well. Any video gamer who has set down their controller in a third person style multiplayer game will recognize the effect that occurs when ZombieKller14 goes "afk" for a while. Morrow does the physical actions wonderfully, and when things turn dark later on he continues to play his character with the detachment of a gamer.

Joseph C. Anderson as Tobias and Meg Dobbs as Barbara
Oddly enough, Meg Dobbs is the scene partner for both of the above mentioned scenes, so she has to be given credit as well for helping to make both of those scenes tense and frightening even while her scene partners are threatening to upstage her. She does a good job of making you feel for her character who is overwhelmed and completely unprepared for what’s going on.

In an effort to keep this from going too long, I am going to refrain from going into particulars about the other performances, but as I said they were all quite good. The only complaint I had, as I said before, was not getting to see most of them for more than about ten minutes. And the direction was, in general, very strong. Tipsword managed to take most of the things which tend to be a weakness in community theater and turn them into strengths. If you’re the sort of person who shies away from minimalist, low-budget, amateur productions on a small stage you should consider rethinking your position and giving this show a try.

The show has a lot of laughs... at first. As the show progresses, the humour begins to wane and the horror begins to rise. By the end, nobody is laughing. It would be difficult to pigeonhole the sort of show Neighborhood 3 really is; it does not lend itself well to genrefication (yes I just made that word up, and yes feel free to use it). It is billed as a black comedy, and it is that... to a certain degree. It is also a social satire, a tense drama, and a chilling horror story at the same time. These elements lead me to classify it, ultimately, as a modern fairytale. It is full of archetypes, metaphors, supernatural elements in a real-world framework, and there is a moral to the story. I’ll let you decide for yourself what that is, but I think you will recognize the mirror which this play holds up to our modern society, as it cautions both the old and new generations to beware of the paths we tread. In short, go see this show. There is a lot of entertainment in an hour and a half, and a lot to think about afterwards.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom plays again April 12 and 13 at 7:30 at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Iowa City. Tickets here.

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