Review: `First Person Shooter’

Opened May 5, 2007 at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse’s sharp `Shooter’ targets violence, video games
three [1/2] stars Current, vital

We love tidiness in our news. The worse the news, it seems, the less we want to think about it, so we welcome a hasty generalization here, a rush to place blame there. Stories become so simplified so quickly we often lose sight of certain things — like the human cost of whatever horrible event has transpired.

Taking his cue from the Columbine tragedy (Virginia Tech happened well after the play was finished), Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb invents a school shooting that might have been inspired by a violent video game and then lets the jagged, messy pieces fall into a dramatic pile that is anything but tidy.

And that’s a good thing.

Loeb’s First Person Shooter opened Saturday in a world-premiere production at SF Playhouse. The play was commissioned by PlayGround, the group that presents short plays by local writers on a monthly basis.

Loeb, who has won multiple awards in the short-play format, expands to full length with relative ease and reveals himself to be a writer of distinct skill. Much of the play is set in the offices of a hip, geeky video game company, and Loeb’s ear for contemporary rhythms and dialogue is unerring.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Loeb’s day job is as COO of a San Francisco video game company.

But more than that, Loeb is able to cut through the frenzy — of money-hungry gamesters, of lawsuits, of media madness — and find the heart of tragedy.

This is not a play about whether or not video game violence (or violence in movies or in rap music for that matter) causes real-life violence. Rather, Loeb uses his dramatic muscle to wrest the story out of the sound byte realm and back into the world of three-dimensional human beings dealing with grief, confusion, fear and a need to place blame.

“We need to hold some of the people accountable for some of the evil in this world,” says one character.

That sentiment covers a lot of ground here. In the wake of an Illinois high school shooting _ two teen shooters killed 14 classmates, including the only African-American student in the school _ makers of a violent, gun-based online video game called “Megaton” are pulled into the glare of the national spotlight.

Prior to the killings, one of the shooters left a message on the game’s Web site essentially saying “thanks for the practice.”

The lawyers then converge on the rural Illinois town with statistics claiming that video games alter brain chemistry and that “it’s only a matter of time before boys try to live out the game.” Their goal is to recruit as many grieving parents as possible for a lawsuit against the video game company.

Clearly, coming from the video game industry, Loeb has a distinct point of view when it comes to whether or not video games are responsible for real-life violence. But that’s not what interests him here.

He deflects that issue by focusing on the game’s primary creator, Kerry Davis (an intense Craig Marker, above), a damaged man still suffering his wife’s violent rape/murder.

There are distinct correlations between this particular video game and this particular killing spree, and the connection dredges up issues of racism, vengeance and accountability.
If anything, there’s too much packed into Loeb’s two-hour drama. Action shifts back and forth from the video game company’s offices to an Illinois farm.

At the office, Kerry deals with co-workers who are sympathetic (Kate Del Castillo as Tamar), jerky (Chad Deverman as Tommy) and terrified (Sung Min Park as Wilson). And on the farm, we meet the father of a murdered student (Adrian Roberts as Daniel) and his second wife (Susi Damilano, left with Roberts, as Rose).

The play comes into clear focus when the two grief-stricken men _ Kerry and Daniel _ are forced together in a TV news interview (an extraordinary scene) and later when they attempt to relate one-on-one as men suffering unthinkable loss.

Director Jon Tracy’s production is lean and powerful (video projections by Brian Degan Scott, Nick Bruty and Kevin Wright put us inside the video game), though he doesn’t seem to trust the drama of the play enough. He continually has his actors pounding and slamming furniture between scenes as if to remind us this drama has impact.

He needn’t worry. Loeb’s play is that rarity in theater: an insightful examination of current events that seems at once relevant and timeless.

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One thought on “Review: `First Person Shooter’

  1. What’s happening. Or not??? This show is so TERRIFIC, its amazing that its not majorly extended. I can only guess that when people go out, they might think this subject is a turnoff. For anyone who likes theater, however, this show has it all. The elements come together. Terrific play by Adam Loeb, who has an amazing background in journalism (and specifically Columbine), playwriting (winner of Short Play awards and NYU degree) and first hand experience as a violence game developer. And the play he comes up with has so many facets. Gaming is really just the springboard for his forays into universal questions like the way we communicate (or don’t), our jobs and whether we really think what we do is moral and worthwhile, how well we understand our own motivations, how well we understand our prejudices… etc. So many ideas, issues, paths that I had to see the plan again to make sure I had all the pieces, and even then I’m not sure.
    And then there is the fine individual and ensemble acting in this play. The leads Craig Marker, Chad Deverman and Adrian Roberts are outstanding, and nail their roles. All actors contribute to a rounded and nuanced performance.
    And then the direction by Jon Tracy is so spare and sharp and focused and shifting like a prism. This is “little theater” at its best!!

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