Theater review: Rude Mechs bring live-action role playing to Duke Performances | Arts
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Monday, September 29, 2014

Theater review: Rude Mechs bring live-action role playing to Duke Performances

Posted by on Mon, Sep 29, 2014 at 4:26 PM

click to enlarge Rude Mechs in Now Now Oh Now - PHOTO BY PATRICK BRESNAN / COURTESY OF DUKE PERFORMANCES
  • photo by Patrick Bresnan / courtesy of Duke Performances
  • Rude Mechs in Now Now Oh Now
Rude Mechs
Now Now Oh Now
Sheafer Lab Theater, 7 p.m., Sept. 26
★★★★ 

Rude Mechs’ Now Now Oh Now is an interactive play about playing—about the transformative potential of playing, to be exact. As a roleplaying game fan and designer, this theme resonates with me. I was curious to see how the Austin, Texas-based theater company would incorporate it in this show, which Duke Performances advertised as being largely based on LARP, or live action role play.

LARP represents a continuum of games with strong performative elements. You get up and wave your arms around. Sometimes your fellow players are a sort of audience, but it remains a deeply insular activity. Tabletop roleplaying games, like Dungeons & Dragons and its many strange offspring, are even more grounded personal improvisation. The only people watching are the people tossing dice with you. While these games have wonderful theatrical elements, there isn’t a one-to-many relationship—you are your own audience. How would Rude Mechs mash up this experience with theater?

The show consists of three parts: a short performance by the whole cast, a puzzle-hunt activity for the audience and an extended monologue with limited interactive elements. It’s a comment on creativity, collaboration and loss, predicated on a shared roleplaying world that we, as the audience, get to experience before it is definitively wrecked forever. I can relate to this because it’s an almost universal story among gaming enthusiasts. A gaming group is a fragile thing, balanced on five or six competing creative agendas and, occasionally, a few raging egos. When broken, these groups are not easily repaired, and all the love and effort that goes into building a shared imagined space can be lost in an instant. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Now Now Oh Now frames its narrative with just such a story, and the result is beautiful and deeply melancholy.

I knew Now Now Oh Now would have some game-like elements, and being required to choose a six-person “clan” to join when I got my ticket increased my excitement. Waiting to be escorted into the performance space, there was an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. One woman I chatted with confessed to being nervous about what was to come. As we were led backstage through a series of twisting corridors to a space that definitely wasn’t the Sheafer black box theater, there was a real sense of mystery. The whole thing was very grubby and theatrical in the best way. We picked up cast members as we went, and it really felt like we were crossing some liminal threshold.

I was ready. If there were characters to play or magic missiles to cast, I was in.

As it turns out, Now Now Oh Now doesn’t contain that sort of game. Its middle section consists of a puzzle evocative of locked room mysteries—an audience of 30 is divided into six groups, each of which must complete a task that involves exploring the elaborate set for clues and, eventually, solutions. It’s full of fun surprises. The game is carefully tuned to be mildly challenging, workable in groups of five and accessible to a wide range of participants. As a game designer, I could sense the wheels turning in the background to make the whole thing elegantly resolve itself in about 15 minutes. 

As a piece of theater, Now Now Oh Now is simultaneously a little ridiculous and thought-provoking—opposed poles that seem to be Rude Mechs’ hallmark. The scenery is alternately austere and baroque, but always beautiful. As an avid gamer who was promised an interactive experience, I loved what was offered, but I couldn’t help wishing there was more to it—something that tied the game into the narrative frame more tightly, perhaps, furthering the overarching story in a way that the central puzzle really didn’t. Guiding 30 random people through such an exercise might be a fool’s errand, but Rude Mechs’ assured performance, technical flair and idiosyncratic storytelling made it seem worth reaching for.

Jason Morningstar is an “analog game designer” who is deeply involved with the tabletop roleplaying game scene as well as the short-form live action roleplaying scene. He plays tabletop RPGs twice a week. He doesn’t usually glue on elf ears but he totally would. His company is Bully Pulpit Games.

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