BWW Review: LEVEL 4 at TheatreLAB Premieres a Video Game with Heart
Dante Piro has a soft heart. His two world premiere plays, staged back to back by two Richmond theaters, demonstrate the young playwright's gentle sentimentality.
The newer play, "Level 4," which runs through August 31 at TheatreLAB, is a humorous dive into the heart of an imaginary vintage video game called Karma Quest. We don't know a lot of the details of the game, but it takes place in a fairly standard game universe where a quester fights his way through various levels in search of-well, in this case, of some crystal shards that can be assembled into a powerful, uh, thing.
The audience can see a chamber in which Light Lord, a boss, and Strobe, his guard, await The Hero-the game player's avatar who's pursuing the quest. The player starts and restarts the game a few times, so we get to see how the quest works. Candy-colored lights (designed by Michael Jarrett) and electronic game sounds (composed and designed by Joey Luck) mimic the look of a game, along with Ruth Hedberg's costumes and Dasia Gregg's set. Director Chelsea Burke has the characters move rhythmically in ways that call to mind the earlier days of Mario Bros.
And then Light Lord starts acting a little funny. He begins to wonder what happens between restarts of the game. He's a little scared. He wants to survive; he wants to connect with The Hero. As the game play starts and stops, he tries to make friends with Mertens, a character who exists on a different level of the game.
It may sound silly, but Piro takes his characters into areas of poignancy and philosophy-what's free will for a villain in a digital world? Chris Klinger, as Light Lord, does a remarkable job of humanizing his character. "My life is not a game," he insists. Adam Turck, as The Hero, stands up to the challenge of portraying more than one player using the same avatar. Adam Valentine does a great job as the stoic Strobe, always ready to fight to defend his lord, and Levi Meerovitch is endearing as the confused Mertens, who figures out how to do some minor vandalism inside the game. Breezy Potter injects great energy into her roles as The Heroine (another player) and Tammy (a disruptive character in the game).
The play slows down in the second act and could probably be pruned, but Burke's direction and Piro's heart make for a charming show, with strong contributions from Emily Turner's fight choreography and Kylie M.J. Clark's props (her puppets are a special treat).
"Level 4" plays at The Basement, 300 E. Broad St., through August 31. Tickets $30, with discounts for students, teachers, seniors and RVATA members, available at theatrelabrva.org or by calling (804) 506-3533.
Photo credit: Tom Topinka