Don’t look now, but there’s a war being waged in the shadows across much of the world, a war fought with highly unconventional weapons. It’s a war for hearts and minds, a battle for control of reality. Well actually, the right to define reality. Theatre Exile inaugurated its Covid-shadowed 2020-21 season with a new play which zeroed in on one tense battleground in this war. Jeremy Gable’s D-Pad by is an astute piece that explores the outsized role played by virtual reality in the lives of so many, mainly – but not solely – young people these days.
The protagonist of D-Pad is Alex Neubauer, a driven video game designer. Having designed a blockbuster game with her ex-boyfriend, Alex is now a rising star in the video game stratosphere. All on her own, she’s now working on a follow-up game with the working title D-Pad, which she projects to be an even bigger blockbuster than the one that made her a rising star. Just the announcement of a new project by Alex sets off a swirl of buzz, so D-Pad is already being flacked through the various channels of the video game world.
The heroine of Alex’s D-Pad game is “Rachel”, an intrepid woman exploring the Amazon. Now Rachel just happens to be the name of Alex’s older sister. Who just happens to be in the Amazon region of Brazil fighting for the rights of that nation’s marginalized communities. Stark reality meets virtual reality.
As the play opens, we catch Alex on a phone call with the real Rachel trying to explain what it means that she’s working on her B.A. in Video Game Design. Rachel herself is about to head off to Brazil to take up the cause of the downtrodden. The two sisters promise to get together again in some not-too-distant future time when their packed schedules allow.
While Alex diligently puts together the virtual Amazon adventures of her Rachel, the flesh-and-blood Rachel is helping build community centers and serving the needs of indigent children in that part of the real world.
As the hype around D-Pad builds, expectations rise, along with the rise in pressure on Alex to deliver the product. As her self-assigned deadline for the appearance of D-Pad nears, Alex sacrifices more and more of her personal life into perfecting the game. But it’s still not enough. She staggers past one deadline after another.
Soon, the buzz around D-Pad metamorphoses into waspish attacks on Alex. She quickly finds herself a victim of the old hex of the ex. Following the established bro-tocals of the gaming industry, male critics and podcasters start insinuating that Alex must have played only a minor role in designing that hit game with her former boyfriend. While the truth lies more in the other direction, Alex is put down as a low-grade collaborator incapable of designing a popular game on her own.
Some of the attacks focus on the “sins” against gaming rules that Alex commits: her D-Pad has begun to pull away from pure fun, fantasy adventures and mindless violence and into high seriousness. Alex recoils from the set rules that say video games need to largely divorce themselves from the real world. Her sister’s travails in Brazil convince Alex that her game has to engage with and reflect the real world beyond the screen. She soon gets caught in the blurred lines between the old reality and the new virtual “reality” and then starts to question her own commitment to serving and producing the latter.
As the negatives get steadily piled on, Alex complains that “A lot of people want me to die” just because of the “failure” of D-Pad. She faces the prospect of a very public failure if she doesn’t fix the freeze which prevents the completion of the game.
The text of D-Pad is sprinkled with some sharp-edged observations about the hurdles women still encounter in certain fields. Such as video game design, for instance. Alex notes that the same behavior that earns men appreciative nods for being “assertive and confident”, gets women pinned with labels such as “bossy and arrogant”.
The Theatre Exile team adapted Jeremy’s Gable’s original text for video production, an often-necessary adjustment these days. The Exile production could serve as a good example of how these challenges could be met and, in some cases, turned into advantages. Director Brey Ann Barrett showed a good feel for the potentials and limitations of the new virtual form. The interaction of Alex and the other characters were, out of necessity, presented in separate panels, but Barrett and her tech people devised commendable strategies for turning necessity into a virtue. The separation became a subtext for the bleak world of virtual reality.
Ang Bey was simply excellent as Alex. Bey rode the wild swings of Alex’s fortunes in a thoroughly convincing manner. Even though the play was presented online, we could feel the anxiety, the determination, the resentment of the character flowing through the intensity of Bey’s performance.
Bey was paired well with Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Justin, the only visible means of moral support for Alex as things start falling apart. Martinez-Briggs’ performance was impressive for a number of reasons, one of the most essential being that he proved a first-rate listener, which is a major part of what this role calls for. You could see Justin absorbing all the pain and stress Alex was feeding him as she reeled through her swings of fortune, and his strong support made Bey’s performance feel that much more real.
Michael Doherty’s duties were the opposite of Martinez-Briggs’. Doherty played the nasties – the bloggers, podcasters and sharp-clawed critics ready to tear Alex apart when D-Pad does not pan out. Doherty’s task in these multiple roles was not to listen, but to rant, to first ooze out fawning approval and then splash venom. Doherty fulfilled his duties well: he checked in as smarmy in the early going, then turned suitably nasty when it would hurt the most.
in the role of older sister Rachel, Paloma Irizarry turned in a solid performance. Though hers was the smallest role in the show, it was also a key to the heart of the story. Izarry carried out her assignment admirably, contributing to the shadow of gloom hanging over the latter stages of the story.
Brey Ann Barrett deserves another salute for the way she guided the cast to the strong performances that made this production a full success in the face of all the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Theatre Exile’s next production, Sin Eaters, will also be presented online and will be available for viewing from February 11 to February 28.