Game on: Jonathon Brooks (left), Maria Giere Marquis (center) and Jai Sahai star in Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs
Nerd-on-nerd love is something to behold.
It’s sweet, it’s smart, it’s funny – at least it is in Cameron McNary’s sharply etched play Of Dice and Men, receiving its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. McNary boldly goes where no dramatist has gone before him (at least none I’ve ever seen). He takes his audiences into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game involving elves, fairies, wizards and the like – exactly the kind of game that gets kids beaten up in high school.
I remember the D&D kids in high school, and they weren’t like the other geeks. They were so into their thing it almost demanded respect. Some dressed up as their characters and proudly carted around their boxes and binders and backpacks, all of which was carefully unpacked around their designated table in the library. I remember once picking up a Dungeons and Dragons book to see what it was all about, and as I recall, the book might as well have been written in Latin. It didn’t make sense to me. At all.
One of the wonderful things about McNary’s play is that you don’t have to know anything about D&D to enjoy it. I’m sure there’s all kinds of verisimilitude that he and director Melissa Hillman have brought to this production – authenticity in the game-playing scenes, wonderfully obscure, titter-inducing references for those in the know, and that’s as it should be. As a foreigner in this world, I feel like the play tugged me into a world I didn’t completely understand but fully recognized. One character describes this world as “like having rules for playing pretend,” and that’s all I really need to know.
The center of the story involves love stories of various kinds – platonic and otherwise. We see how the playing of this game, with its Dungeon Master maneuvering behind a protective little wall, its crazy dice and its Tolkien-on-steroids characters, creates a bond among its players and gives them a creative outlet, a playground for their obsessions and, best of all, a society.
McNary pulls us into the world slowly and skillfully. First we meet the Johns: John Francis (Seth Thygesen), the stable Dungeon Master, and John Alex (Jai Sahai), the foul-mouthed loose cannon who is on the 22nd iteration of his D&D character, Spango Garnet Killer. In one brilliant scene (and with a nod to Colin Trevor’s projections), we see John Alex’s drawings of his character, scrawled on binder paper of course, through the years, the draftsmanship and attention to detail improving with each passing year. [Note: thank you to director Melissa Hillman for letting me know the drawings are by Emily Hardin and come from last year’s world-premiere production at the Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention.]
These passionate players are joined by an interloper, Jason (Jonathon Brooks), who is quickly taken into the fold.
Net thing we know, these guys are in their 30s. True to stereotype, John Francis is living in his mother’s basement, but you couldn’t call him a loser. The game is still a huge part of his life, and his circle has expanded to include a “hot gamer chick,” Tara (Maria Giere Marquis) and a married couple, Linda (Linda-Ruth Cardozo) and Brandon (Stacz Sadowski) who happily support each other’s hobbies (hers is D&D, his is the Washington Redskins – neither really likes the other’s obsession, but hey, that’s marriage).
This group of gamers is a lot more attractive than the group I remember from high school, but that may be part of the point. McNary makes several persuasive comparisons between D&D and football, both of which could be compared to any hobby. The reason you do it most often comes down to the other people – the people who help imbue the ritual of it all with meaning.
Through two acts and nearly two hours, McNary lets each of his characters appear in costume (nice work on a budget by Miyuki Bierlein) and tell us about them, and, consequently, about themselves. Tara is an elfin princess with too much back story. Jason is an armor-clad warrior. Brandon is a barbarian. And Linda is a dwarf with a Scottish accent and a penchant for dick jokes.
In Act 2, things get pretty serious as real-life stuff threatens the group and its social dynamic. There’s anger, there’s heroism, there’s romance, there’s bromance. There’s even an extraordinary speech about friendship and war that wrings a tear. Hillman and her cast are completely up to the challenge of the drama, especially when the real-world drama melds with the fantasy of the game.
It’s easy to like these people as people and not as geeky stereotypes, so you care that the sexy gamer chick finally gets together with the right gamer guy or that the friendships are the thing that matters most. McNary demonstrates the vital importance of pursuits like Dungeons and Dragons. They are utterly pointless, he says, and they matter. The latter is certainly true when it comes to Of Dice and Men, a play that explores the specific to reveal the universal.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men continues through Oct. 1 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.