Game on: SF Playhouse’s ‘Non-Player Character’ fascinates in form, fails in function

April 16, 2018, 2:26 a.m.

The SF Playhouse’s world premiere of Walt McGough’s “Non-Player Character” is by no means a perfect play, but it is an intriguing one at the least.

All of the Playhouse’s productions I’ve seen are in the group’s in-house theater, a cozy (yet deceivingly large) two-level theater tucked up right next to Union Square. The Playhouse fosters this sense of home in the space even if the set and design drastically and magically transforms for each production — from a fully functioning kitchen in one to a two-story rotating apartment set in another. Food is allowed at the Playhouse, where I usually cozy up with at least some kind of snack next to a large number of elderly white couples who hold subscriptions to the theater (bizarre, but neither false nor surprising).

On the other hand, “Non-Player Character” was in the Creativity Theater, a relatively equivalently-sized theater in the Children’s Creativity Theater in the Yerba Buena complex in San Francisco. The defamiliarizing of the space, even — my lack of comfort with the space, from the tall ceilings to the openness of the set (designed by Jacquelyn Scott) — influenced my perception of the play as a technologically-focused play. The crux of the play, connection in the digital world — was captured right in the design of the space in which the characters lived.

“Non-Player Character” (directed by Lauren English) follows the relationship of Katja (Emily Radosevich) and Trent (Devin O’Brien), former friends who now live in different cities and lead vastly different adult lives but connect once a week to a play an online game that they both love. This devolves when Trent reveals his feelings to Katja and she does not reciprocate, becoming something much more sinister and playing to the dangers of the internet. The plot is loosely based around Gamergate, a movement and issue brought to light surrounding sexism in both the video game industry and the video game player world.

Theater is an interesting medium. Often, characters have to transcend space and “play out” to the audience rather than speaking face to face to each other because of sight lines and simply being able to have the audience seeing the actors. Because of the digital space in which the characters interacted for much of the show (Katja and Trent playing the online game), this was able to be represented by the actors prancing and moving around the space as their avatars, shooting space-object weapons and swinging imaginary swords, accompanied by heavily captivating sound effects (designed by Theodore J.H. Hulsker). These interactions were so compelling (with choreography by Elena Wright) that there wasn’t even a need for real objects or set pieces in space, which aided the production extremely well.

Nevertheless, the production relied very heavily on projections (also designed by Hulsker), mostly necessitated by the script (available to read on New Play Exchange, to which you need an account, but in case anyone’s interested). This worked extremely effectively in the space — a large paneled wall dominated the back of the set — but felt out of place with the actual content. The videos and projections that were sent felt tangential to the actual plot at hand, including the harsh epithets and insults thrown at the protagonist via social media and digital sources. Figuring out technology’s place in theater is something that has always been so hard to grasp and pin down, but the Playhouse certainly tries.

I came out of the show feeling impressed and intrigued by the material, but not fully satisfied by the resolution and the execution. Whether or not Trent or Katja win in the end is irrelevant because Gamergate is an ongoing issue (and highly relevant to so many career fields — honestly, even to daily life), but Katja’s own personal journey as she creates her own specialized computer game in which the aim is not to win, but to explore one’s own creative world never truly comes to a close and feels like an undiscovered parallel plot. It also echoes and even seems to play into the whole sexism-in-video-games context (but does it play into the stereotype or play off of it?) as Trent begins to grow competitive, seeing Katja’s “unwinnable” game as pointless — is this just another illustration, now theatrical, of “bro culture?” It appears that McGough is criticizing it as we see Katja’s ingenuity, but nothing comes of it other than her own exploration and sharing it with her friend and boss Naomi (Charisse Loriaux) because she is (arguably because of industry double standards) worried about sharing it with the world. In addition, the one character who ends up being this emasculated male character is played by an Asian American actor (Dean Goya) who fawns over the female body and contributes no real plot content, showing up for a mere end scene. Katja as a character gains little from these one-off interactions, while her story and her experiences with other supportive (or at least semi-supportive) characters such as Naomi are blown off as either simply comedic or “reflective musings” rather than actionable character development.

But how I wish “Non-Player Character” were still in development. I love boundary-pushing plays that explore the theatrical form and explore issues that are salient and don’t conform to traditional content. “Non-Player Character” needs another couple once-overs to clean up the script and the tightness of the story, but the SF Playhouse does not shy away from tackling it head-on.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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