Review: New York Theater Goes Console With 'The Wii Plays'

Gamasutra correspondent Matt Hawkins attended a series of short plays in New York City based on various Wii games, and gives a thorough review of the interesting, if mixed experience.
[Gamasutra correspondent Matt Hawkins takes a close look at The Wii Plays, a series of short game-centric plays currently underway in New York City, and evaluates how they make use of their source material, to appreciated but sometimes mixed results.] The Wii Plays is running from February 1st to 12th at Ars Nova, an Off-Broadway theater in midtown Manhattan. The brainchild of its writers collective, the Play Group, their latest body of work is a collection of 12 bite-sized stage productions that are either based upon or inspired by assorted games for the Wii (at least, that's how it's being promoted). Right off the bat, the concept is fairly novel, given how many minigame collections make their home on the system. The first thing the audience sees is the familiar Wii dashboard, projected on the background, with each channel representing a play. It's rather cute. The first vignette deals with Wii Sports -- Wii Tennis, to be exact. But instead of watching two people on stage pretend to be characters in the game, or players controlling them in the real world, we witness an encounter between two former lovers at a coffee shop. The awkward pleasantries immediately devolve into a verbal tit for tat over who is better off following their epic breakup. Each jab is accentuated by a sound effect from the game, of the tennis ball being hit, and a particularly biting comment gets the same cheering sound effect for a successful shot in the game. Thus the pace is set for The Wii Plays. For starters, those who are knowledgeable about video games and interested in twelve literal (or semi-literal) translations of titles they are either familiar or unfamiliar with, set to stage and performed by thespians, are in for a bit of a shock. Only a scant few actually manage to touch upon the subject manner in an instantly recognizable manner, whereas the rest are simply, as noted, the basis of inspiration -- a sentiment that one immediately discovers is a bit of a stretch.
Interpretations of games are somewhat preferable over straightforward reenactments -- not only does it show more creativity, but it simply makes better sense on a purely logistical level. However, most of these plays have seemingly nothing to do with the proclaimed source material -- or, at the very least, that's how it comes off. I will admit to not being super familiar each game that was on display, but I saw little connection with the ones based upon games I did know of. In these instances, it almost felt as if the connections were tacked on as an afterthought or matter of convenience. For example, in the episode based on Let's Tap, we get two teens with nothing in common trying to figure each other out, with the revelation being that they had a tap class together when they were kids. In the one about Bob The Builder, it's simply two squabbling divorcees, with the husband stopping by his former residence to pick up the Wii, so when the kids visit him on the weekend, they can play their favorite game. At least the topic is somewhat directly addressed in this instance. And Tomb Raider: Anniversary centers on Dr. Frankenstein -- who is actually married to the Bride of Frankenstein this time around -- and how he proposes the idea of them searching catacombs on their wedding anniversary so they can accumulate body parts for a new addition to the family. Get it, Tomb Raider... Anniversary? For Marvel Superhero Squad, there's no Spider-Man, Captain America, or Wolverine, but a wholly original man in tights complaining to a therapist about his relatively lame powers. Barbie As The Island Princess is about the iconic blonde symbol of idealized womanhood, circa the 50s, and her awakening to all the possibilities the modern world has to offer. Which is all fine and dandy (if a bit unoriginal) but what exactly do they have anything to do with video games again? It's just a shame since there are so many tropes that the world of gaming offers that could have been utilized to breathe new life into such cliched set-ups.
To be honest, everything I've detailed would be perfectly acceptable if it was simply engaging -- which alas is also not the case. Whereas gamer types might be confused but ultimately forgiving with the overall novelty that Wii Plays provides, seasoned theater-goers might be less patient and understanding. As already noted, many of the situations and parables presented are fairly standard fare to practically a fault, especially for the stage. The scenario that the aforementioned Wii Tennis presents is something theater goes have seen and heard literally a million times. Buck Fever and Burger Island both use the games as settings -- the middle of a forest and a fast food joint, respectively -- and are nothing more than just another environment for one overbearing character to talk the head off the other, before the one first snaps and the second reaches some kind of epiphany. The fact that virtually every single narrative presented follows this exact format is the easily The Wii Plays' greatest weakness. At least two of the tales attempt to go outside of the box, so to speak, such as the one built around the Speed Slice activity found in Wii Sports Resort, in which a cocky youth's skills at the game is proven no match for the soft-spoken and seemingly-inexperienced elder. But near the end comes a line of dialogue that's supposed to be some kind of bombshell, to bring the scene to an emotional crescendo, which one can see coming a mile away and just comes off so cheap and to an extent lazy. The second, based upon All-Star Cheer Squad, in which you discover the player's girlfriend is actually one of his custom creations in the game tries pulling off the same exact stunt (the fact that these two stories are presented side by side is a serious gaffe to boot). But at the very least, they both do a far better job of acknowledging their subject matter. Lastly we have two final mini plays; the first based on Alien Monster Bowling League simply builds itself around the basic premise of the game and is a stark contrast against the "clever" attempts at interpretation mostly presented in the rest of the production, which is greatly appreciated. The show ends with Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Winter Games, with both of them competing over the sole open team slot in every competition leading up to the games, and Sonic becoming progressively frustrated with Mario one-upping him every single time. Perhaps the subject matter is addressed far too literally, as with Alien Monster Bowling League, yet both are desperately-welcomed breaths of fresh air. Each is goofy, light-hearted fun and doesn't try to go for some emotional gut punch or social commentary, thank goodness.
So is the entire production without merit? Of course not. Most of the performances (many different roles are presented, all of which are brought to life by six actors) are fairly enjoyable, with the definite stand out being Zach Shaffer, who plays both a cocky alien and even cockier Mario in the two aforementioned plays. Otherwise, as much as I hate to say it, there is not a whole lot to recommend, other than to say that it's notable for being a still early example of a burgeoning form, which is the world of video game theater. In that sense, it's overall contribution to such a space is still very much appreciated, and hopefully it'll inspire others to do something similar, and hopefully make improvements to the formula. As unfair it might be to do, others already have made the comparison already, so I feel need to address what many people believe to be the forerunner and perhaps direct inspiration of The Wii Plays. Last summer, The Brick in Williamsburg, as part of their now yearly Game Play Festival, which celebrates the marriage of video game and performance art, presented a similar effort called the Theater Of The Arcade, which also offered short-form plays based on games. Each was quite wild in their takes on familiar games and personalities found within, yet still very much true to them as well. My favorite was easily their notion of the Super Mario Bros mythos, with Mario and Luigi presented as two squabbling siblings that are down on their luck. As they bicker, each consumes hallucinogenic drugs in the middle of the forest, as many losers are prone to do, and the ghost of their departed father visits them. The elder statesmen warns that if they continue on their path of pettiness and laziness, they're doomed to be complete losers for life. But, if they take the proper steps to men up and see what is truly going on out there, their minds will be blown by all that exists, their true potential, and how they'll need to muster those powers to confront the truth of it all, like how dragons exist, and how one kidnapped Mario's girlfriend (who did not in fact simply leave her boyfriend due to unhappiness). This was the kind of inventiveness and playfulness that I was hoping for in The Wii Plays, or at least a somewhat close approximation, that sadly never made itself apparent. It should be noted, by the way, that Theater Of The Arcade was the inspiration for this column, and I certainly hope it makes a repeat performance at this year's upcoming Game Play Festival. Back to subject at hand; one cannot deny the enthusiasm that the performers and perhaps even the authors have for the source material, as off-the-mark the end result might be. Not once does it belittle or patronize the games and their players, which would have been the greatest offense. Yet off-the-mark it all ultimately still is. It almost feels like a cheap knock-off of a popular, beloved game, the kind in which the makers clearly enjoy games as a whole, yet have failed to understand what makes individual titles works in the first place. Still, its contribution to the overall form cannot be denied and is still very much valuable. The Wii Plays continues its limited engagement until February 12th. To see what remaining shows are scheduled, as well as to purchase tickets, simply refer to this link. [Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist, who contributes to Gamasutra and numerous other outlets, including EGM and Giant Robot Magazine. Plus he's the East Coast representative for the LA based game culture shop Attract Mode, and self publishes his own video game periodical, the FORT90ZINE. Matt also sometimes makes comics, really enjoys cable access, and has about two dozen other pursuits. For more info, check out]

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