As players in dark hoodies skulk through the digitally rendered suburbs, a voice intones instructions: Drink the chocolate milk. Break the lawn gnome with a hammer. Recall that “the goal during daytime is to blend in.” But as you might suspect, this game the teens are playing is not what it seems. “Ha, that sounds like something out of a horror movie,” sasses one of the teen gamers, and how right she it. In Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, playwright Jennifer Haley, author of The Nether, continues to play with the latest in speculative techno-terror: Virtual Reality. Dana Wieluns Legawiec directs a tart, sly student production of this dark comic quasi-horror show at the University of Southern Maine.
Here where white picket fences hang ajar over identical pastel houses, we watch encounters between an array of “Avatars,” a slew of parent and teen types played with tongue firmly in cheek by an agile ensemble of four: Brittany Burke as the Daughter Type, Griffin Gingrich as the Sons, Savannah Irish as the Mothers, and DJ Monteith as the Fathers. As the parents worry about the new game and the strangers their children are becoming, the kids (depending on type) revolt against parents, try to get laid, obsessively play the game, and/or freak out about something terribly wrong about the game.
Meanwhile, three eerie “IRLs” (the letters stand for “In Real Life”), aka the gamers (Ricky Brewster, Elizabeth Donato, and Emma Zerba), glide through the neighborhood in black, following the instructions of the “Walkthrough Narrator” (Sean Arsenault) who directs them when to take a pair of lawn clippers or notice a wormhole near the pooling blood. But the worlds of the IRLs and the avatars are fluid; ever closer do they fold and flip.
Director Legawiec is a renowned physical performer, and much of her work as co-founder of Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble has focused on the mythic. These modes yield rich performances in Requisition, as the standard horror tropes come to take on archetypal importance. The Avatars often land in vogue-like postures of type: the spoiled promiscuous girl sticking out her chest, the “goth cheerleader” frozen in rebelliously athletic stride. The protean Burke, especially, dazzles as she switches up the teen girl Avatars; Gingrich does a convincing boy-next-door; and Irish also shows fine range as she moves between a wistful mom, a superficial social-climber forcing wine on her son’s ex-girlfriend, and an anxious, Fifties-styled mom who ventures over to the neighbor with the weed-whacker and the plastic smock (Monteith, as a possible psychopath with a creepily mild affect).
Legawiec’s attention to movement also shows the ritualistic nature of the game itself. Playing is physically habit-forming, as we see in the teenagers’ carefully choreographed and varied repetitive motion on keyboards and consoles. The IRLs’ movement through the game, on the other hand, has a distinctly narcotic vibe, like velvet and morphine (a contrast that could be amped even more by upping some of the pacing in Avatar sequences). Their faces half-concealed, the IRLs move with disconcerting smoothness, and, in one interlude, undulate their arms slowly, reminiscent of conjuring or battle, to an atmospheric cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music.”
It’s a sound design choice that exemplifies the production’s overall ethos: both scary and tongue-in-cheek. One the one hand, there are hedge clippers raised in the shadows. On the other, there’s the sharp tang of colloquial teen snark and the pop culture of the suburban rich — vitamin shakes, Vicodin, Hummers, parental misbehavior in gorilla costumes.
This combo of fright and humor gives the best horror movies their tension, as does the meta self-reflection in which Haley revels — Neighborhood both scares us and sends up our scare. Finally, also like the best horror movies, it plays on fears both timeless (the Other, the unknowable child) and specific to a particular age or new technology. In the past, it’s been radioactivity or the stupor of capitalist consumerism. Now, it’s a game world that looks a little too much like our own.
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom | By Jennifer Haley; directed by Dana Wieluns Legawiec; produced by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre | Through October 8 | University of Southern Maine, Gorham | Thu 7:30 pm; Fri 10 am & 7:30 pm; Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $16, $12 seniors, $8 students |
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