THEATER REVIEW: BERKELEY
Show #80: Of Dice and Men, Impact Theatre, September 2.
Half-drow assassin Nigel Blackthorn and Petula the Space Pirate walk into La Val’s tavern, still much wearied from their quest to lay siege to Castle Dashwood and in need of rest before embarking upon the morrow’s epic adventure that would become known through the ages as Conan: Blood and Tits. After that Nigel alone would have to boldly go on the Way to Eden. It’s a hard knock life, all this adventuring.
But what’s this? Near the tavern door, past the pizza counter and the pinball games, is a stairway leading down into the cellar’s hidden recesses. Beside the stairs a sign reads “Of Dice and Men.” Before they can act, our heroes have to take their own dice from a bag of holding to see who gets to move first. Petula wins the initiative, so she asks a nearby barkeep what mysteries lie below. (He’s wiping a glass, which is how she can tell he’s a barkeep.)
“Come see our basement, travelers,” says the barman. “There a merry band of players called Impact Theatre will entertain you, if you take my meaning.”
“What is your meaning?” says brave Petula.
“Actually, that’s about it,” the barkeep says. “I mean they will entertain you.”
“You do not deceive us, stranger,” says cautious Nigel. “It is dark in yonder black box. We may be eaten by a grue.”
But even as he says it, he rolls the dice again to discover that he is in fact convinced by the tavern keeper’s winged words. After all, who knows what treasure they might find down there, or valuable experience points at the very least? So they descend to find the barman speaks sooth. There a play competes with the clattering noises from upstairs, and it turns out to have many experience points in its favor.
Chief among these is the clever script by 10th-level bard Cameron McNary about a close-knit group of Dungeons & Dragons players, some of whom have been gaming together for more than 20 years. It’s a sharp and lively production with a strong ensemble cast directed by this basement’s own dungeon master Melissa Hillman in one of her rare non-Shakespearean stagings.
Martin Flynn’s set transforms the basement into… well, into another basement, as one might find in one’s parents’ house. Issues of Avengers, Superman and Spider-Man are displayed proudly upon the walls, though not particularly notable or attractive issues. The walls are also bedecked with packaged toys of fabled heroes such as Hulk and Orko and an array of movie posters and LP covers. File boxes marked “give away” and “take with” sit on the floor, and the “give away” box is conspicuously packed with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals. Costumer Miyuki Bierlein gives each player appropriate casual garb, but their getups when they emerge as their characters are especially fun.
John Francis is at a crossroads. Unbeknownst to his fellow adventures, he’s taking a job in faraway San Francisco. And not only is he preparing to abandon his gaming group, he’s planning to give up gaming entirely. “I am 30 years old, and I live in my mother’s basement,” he says. “I have become the stereotype of my hobby.”
Though Seth Thygesen’s mild-mannered, clean-cut John Francis tries to be grown-up and subdued, his enthusiasm when he talks about D&D is palpable, whether he’s revisiting when he first got into the game as a little kid or when he’s bursting with pride in guiding the game well as a dungeon master in the present day.
His best friend John Alex is constantly boiling over while John Francis keeps his cool. An unwashed and unrested-looking Jai Sahai spits out long streams of hilariously elaborate curses as John Alex, and what’s particularly priceless is that he cusses the same way in flashbacks as an 8-year-old complaining about the lack of bloodshed on G.I. Joe, only without the actual cuss words. But his funniest moment is the costumed slideshow where he runs through generation after generation of the same oft-slain backstabbing rogue character he’s played since his childhood. “I am Spango Garnet Killer, the 22nd of that name!” he cries in a fierce monologue. “I am a halfling, which is a hobbit, but not copyrighted by the Tolkien estate.” Accompanying notebook-scrawled portraits of the various Spangos are projected behind him in an ever less childish hand.
It’s an open secret that John Francis has had a crush on Tara, a fellow gamer, since at least high school, and that she feels the same but they’ve rarely been single at the same time. He’s too shy to make a move, and her raunchy sense of humor effectively muddies the waters of whether she’s flirting with him or not, which of course she totally is. Maria Giere Marquis has an appealingly assured swagger as Tara, who’s a live wire but has the unfortunate habit of boring unwilling listeners with her half-elf magician princess’s endlessly elaborate back story. Mostly she’s sick to death of her character dying all the time and cusses playfully in Elvish (whether Sindarin, Nandorin or Quenya our gawking adventurers cannot discern).
At first it’s hard to get a read on Jonathon Brooks’s Jason because he’s just always quietly smiling—even when he first meets the Johns in school, he just grins at them until they can’t help interrupting their gaming chatter to notice him. But that’s just who Jason is: low-key, pleasant but also kind of a wallflower—enough so that when he does finally say something, and something important, it comes as a bit of a shock.
Especially endearing are married couple Linda and Brandon. She’s possibly the most dedicated role-player of the bunch, and he doesn’t get the appeal of D&D at all (he’s an avid football fan), but he plays the game with uncomprehending willingness, responding to all challenges with “I hit it in the face.” Despite the fact that they’re not into each other’s hobbies at all, he supportively plays every D&D game with her, and she’s right by his side for every Redskins game.
Linda-Ruth Cardozo’s Linda throws herself into the game with gusto as dwarf cleric with a deep Scottish brogue and a tendency to boast of the heft of his mighty weapon, which means pretty much what you think it does. Stacz Sadowski’s Brandon is sweetly endearing in how game he is to participate in the game despite not really knowing or caring exactly what’s going on.
In short, our weary travelers Petula and Nigel find themselves well entertained. The plot devices are sometimes transparent, they find, but the clever dialogue and endearing characters delight them, and they do not make their saving throw against merry laughter. And Crom knows the play makes gaming seem like a whole lot of fun, far more lively than they remember it being back in the mists of time, before they had to focus on more adult matters like assassinations and space piracy. Somehow it does their battle-hardened hearts good to know not everyone has to leave such things behind.
Of Dice and Men runs through October 8 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. http://impacttheatre.com