nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
August 12, 2007
Round One. Sal and Roddy each have "full lives." Electronic music plays, punches are exchanged, and retorts are bandied about in automated voices. "Lives" are lost and "lives" are gained.
The only problem with this video game is it isn't a game, it's how socially awkward teenager Roddy views real life (and consequently how we, the audience, view his world). Sega, Nintendo, Mario, etc. have (potentially irrevocably) warped Roddy's perception of reality.
For unsuccessful game store owner Sal, however, life is terribly real and chock full of marital, financial, and family problems. On the eve of the store's permanent closing, Sal finds himself stuck with Roddy (aka "Helmet"). Sal can't lock the doors until his wife returns with the keys, and Roddy can't bear, or even comprehend the thought of, parting with his haven. So our two guys stay in the store together—sometimes sparring, sometimes bonding. When we first see Roddy playing a game he is like a junkie, holding the controls perfectly still, caught in an orgasmic moment. It is chilling.
Director Maryann Lombardi has done a brilliant job bringing this text to life. Helmet is performed in the style of a video game and she has clearly defined the rules for this world. There is a very specific vocabulary of actions that the characters can use (climb, crawl, jump, or run mechanically across invisible gridlines) and actors Michael Evans Lopez and Troy David Mercier (playing Sal and Roddy, respectively) execute the physically demanding choreography with precision and skill.
Whenever a "life" is lost it is accompanied by a quick blackout and a mournful computerized sound. Lights come back up and the actors try it again, going back in the scene (in a David Ives-ian fashion) to right before it all went wrong. Amy Altadonna and Vincent Olivieri's sound design and Robert Strano's lighting design excellently conjure up the world of the play. There's nothing onstage but the actors, and yet we simultaneously see Sal's boring reality (a counter, games, window shutters, etc.) and Roddy's souped-up, action-packed, high-intensity version.
Playwright Douglas Maxwell has given us some very interesting material to chew on. As each "round" progresses, the stakes are raised, and the plot twists with some good surprises. Our understanding of Roddy is constantly changing, from when he tells Sal that his favorite book is the instruction manual to a game to when, in a rare idiot savant moment, he points out that video games cannot be the cause of violence because there's always been killing and the"old people" had two big wars, right?, and maybe that was because they didn't have games.
Helmet is very timely and very innovative, and will leave you both entertained and thinking.