As one walks into the Den’s Upstairs Mainstage, they are confronted by a grid of 24 white squares, reminiscent of uniform windows or screens. Alt-rock synth blares and pounds around the blank digital canvas, that fans of the Gorillaz or MGMT might find thrilling. Center stage, an equally blank white chair sits, with an Xbox controller and a miked headset atop it. Suddenly, the theatre goes dark. Virtual gunshots go off as the geometrics flicker and pop. This is a first-person shooter full of obscenities and political incorrectness, and Daniel Chenard’s Tom is right in the thick of it.
Men’s Rights Activists Drop In the Queue
Fun Harmless Warmachine explores the consequences of toxic masculinity and tribalism in the age of social media and under the veil of virtual masculinity. Tom, the protagonist, is an avid gamer who, at an early point in the play, gets rejected by a long-time crush at his office. Not only is he fresh out of college and on a search for his purpose: he can’t even find romance in Chi-Town. So, he vents his frustrations shooting mag after mag in his video games. It’s in this world that Tom changes drastically from quiet and pathetic to belligerent and vulgar. This angsty energy and sting of rejection attracts the attention of Niko, a recruiter for an online movement called The Order of the Sword, led by Hunter, played by Robert Koons. The group seems to be a community of gamers, but before Tom can realize what’s going on, he finds himself promoted to general in an army of trolls and alt-right activists, destroying the lives of everyone around him. The script by Fin Coe can get repetitive and on-the-nose at times to this viewer, but fans of other technological morality works like Be More Chill, The Nether, or even Bladerunner and Ready Player One will find the questions posed by the script worthy of discussion.
The New Colony Flashes and Shines
A true highlight of this production for this theatre-goer was the inventive and vibrant lighting design by Claire Chrzan. The decision to use colorful squares as the walls of the stage allow for some striking stage pictures. When Tom is in the thick of the virtual warzone, the squares glow crimson red, like the blood of the noobs that he leaves in his wake. Every gunshot is accompanied by a flash from a random square, accentuating the real while accenting the surreal. Whenever Tom gets a text from his friend or a worried message from his mother, quick and well-placed spots touch the actors just enough to direct the audience’s attention, but not so much that the focus becomes confusing. On a stage that remains empty beyond a few chairs here and there, the lighting plays an extra important part, and Chrzan rises to the challenge. The colors might make one think of 80s arcade games at times, or even the utopian/dystopian futures of I, Robot or Black Mirror.
The Women Rise Above
In the eyes of this actor/playwright, all of the female players in Fun Harmless Warmachine are strong performers, and give a show that’s so full of other confused worlds a sense of groundedness. A scene at a downtown party introduces the assertive and passionate Ekaterina, played by Ayanna Bria Bakari with heart, who seasons her scenes with Tom with real reactions. Tom’s other love interest, played by Emily Marso, also provides a lovely touch of the organic. The comic relief of this dark techno-thriller comes primarily however from Laura Sturm. In one hilarious moment, she plays an avatar of a gamer that has barely played before, and fumbles around the stage moving in circles and shooting into the air. Despite what this audience member perceived as some pacing issues, these actresses hold the course.
Ayanna Bria Bakari
Omer Abbas Salem
The Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage
1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Thursday, October 11 – Sunday, November 4, 2018
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm