Serious games

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Two weeks before the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s First Person Shooter, a play that explores the controversial relationship between video games and violence in the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting, Virginia Tech suddenly made the subject almost too relevant. SF Playhouse and PlayGround, the coproducing companies, considered a postponement — according to excerpts from e-mails between the theater’s cofounders, the director, and the playwright, which were reprinted in the program — but in the end went forward with the opening. Loeb’s argument to his colleagues for doing so, reasonable enough in itself, echoed the central dramatic thrust of his play: "We need to connect as people, as human beings in the face of this kind of tragedy, not just try to find who’s to blame and move on with our lives."

Even without the uncomfortable timeliness lent the play by the latest massacre on a US campus, First Person Shooter broaches the twin problems of violence and compassion in American society in a way that feels immediate and compelling. Of course, Loeb’s words carry unintended irony, given that for most of the country (released after only a few days from the condensed, media-scripted period of shock, mourning, and introspection reserved for national tragedies of a certain newsworthiness), the Virginia Tech killings are already yesterday’s papers and a fuzzy memory. Just as predictably, the shootings prompted another facile, recycled exercise in blame casting (into which the militarized and imperial system responsible for similar and bigger rampages abroad, needless to say, never enters), since which we’ve all been tacitly encouraged to move on with our lives.

Although it doesn’t go as far as it might, First Person Shooter admirably refuses the usual package of talking points that passes for a discussion of American violence. The plot’s deceptively narrow focus on a boisterous set of twentysomething business execs and video game makers on the one hand and the unassuming farmer parents of a slain student on the other moves beyond stale gun control debates and scientific studies of child brain chemistry to take in the intersecting legal, corporate, media, and racial logics determining how violence plays in the mainstream.

Loeb’s play, moreover, enters this fray from a particularly invested perspective: the rising playwright is also chief operating officer of Planet Moon Studios, a San Francisco video-game-developing house. That background lends a certain insider authenticity to the Bay Area start-up world depicted here and makes the play’s honest wrestling with and socially wide-ranging approach to the issue of video games and violence all the more striking.

Within a sharply written and straightforward drama (imaginatively staged with sustained verve and precision by director Jon Tracy), Loeb sets up a series of relationships and imaginary identifications that resonate increasingly as his story moves forward. In the opening scene, for instance, we see whiz kid programmer Kerry Davis (a terrific Craig Marker), the genius behind JetPack Games’ most violent and popular seller, at the keyboard wearing a pair of headphones, gangsta rapping with gusto in what he assumes is private abandon. Standing behind him, however, is his amused peer and JetPack’s rogue of a CEO, Tommy (an equally strong Chad Deverman). The comic effect of Kerry’s blind spot — an unawareness that his private fantasies might have public aspects — soon comes back in the grimmest guise: a masked shooter named Billy (alternately played by four cast members) posts a fan letter on the company’s Web site praising Kerry’s game as excellent training, shortly before going on a killing spree with a friend at an Illinois high school. As if this weren’t bad enough, among their victims is the school’s lone African American student, a boy, we come to learn, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the villain Kerry has programmed into the game as a secret (virtual) revenge on the man who murdered his wife.

Kerry’s guilt and anxiety are impossible to contain, invading both the haunted dream world where he relives the brutal attack on his wife (scenes impressively rendered in a bold, cinematic style on Melpomene Katakalos’s spare stage of toppled chairs and tables, augmented by Brian Degan Scott’s excellent two-panel video design and Ian Walker’s atmospheric soundscape) and the JetPack offices. Further, the legal and media uproar that results from the killings shakes the tight little team — rounded out by a hip young programmer named Wilson (Sung Min Park) and a forceful MBA named Tamar (Kate Del Castillo) — just as the now notorious and endangered company is set to launch the game’s successor. Enter lawyers all around, played by Park and Susi Damilano, who also plays a slain student’s well-meaning stepmother. They pursue winner-take-all strategies on behalf of the victims’ families and the embattled corporation, respectively, as Kerry and his counterpart on the other side of the battle, a dead student’s father (played movingly, in shades of turmoil and dignity, by Adrian Roberts), grope their way out of the dehumanizing machine that’s caught them up, toward some kind of contact, some identification, grounded in a shared suffering and understanding. *

FIRST PERSON SHOOTER

Through June 9

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 3 p.m.)

$18–$60

SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 677-9596

www.sfplayhouse.org