I want a world where we can play, it’ll be by invitation only
You and you and me, that’s us, and you know that’s the way it should be
We’ll work on our social chemistry in a place that is bright and airy
Our dreams will come true in our little place and our powers extraordinary
This is the rap that starts off the New York Neo-Futurists’ latest full-length show, a hip-hoperetta exploring video games and identity. You are in an open field is an infectiously fun romp through video-game nostalgia, equally contained and unrestrained within the archetypal basement hideout/prison that slowly transforms into a digital playground.
The performers, emulating video-game characters with their monochromatic T-shirts and microphone holsters, rap and dance their way through personal accounts about frustrations trivial and existential, accompanied by a live band: Carl Riehl on keytar and synths, Scott Selig on bass and guitar, and Patrick Carmichael on drums. The songs in this nerdcore musical are energetic (if a little repetitive at times) and utilize the voices and effects of beloved video games. But while they experiment with theater styles and (here) video game tropes, the New York Neo-Futurists don’t play characters. Adam Smith, Marta Rainier, and Kevin R. Free co-wrote the show (with fellow Neo Eevin Hartsough) and star in it. Any confessions, frustrations, and reminisces are authentically theirs.
(Full disclosure: I’m currently interning with the New York Neo-Futurists, but only for their regular show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. I have not been involved with the development of You are in an open field.)
Therein, however, lies my particular quibble with the show. What’s frustrating about open field is the lack of dramatic stakes, especially because per the Neo Futurist aesthetic, all of the conflicts and confessions spoken/rapped by Marta, Adam, and Kevin are true. Except for an early sequence fighting Kickball Steve — perhaps a metaphor for the cutthroat children’s game — the Neos hardly ever have to defend their love of video games to anyone. Having seen other Neo Futurist full-length shows, I expected more intimate details: What exactly is lacking in their lives and what they still want to achieve, for one.
It’s a fine line to walk when dealing with the increasing saturation of geekiness in New York’s indie theater scene. Obviously there’s a demand for shows about supercomputers, alien invasions, and video games, but there’s also the meta question of whether the playwrights are obligated to make the case for their subject matter. Is it because geek has become so mainstream that a nerdy narrative should be able to be delivered without an agenda? Or do Adam, Kevin, and Marta owe it to their Zork-loving progenitors to strap on boxing gloves along with their cardboard armor and foam swords?
That said, candidness isn’t the only Neo-Futurist trope on display here. The show uses the Neos’ love of randomness to great effect: Each level ends with the Neos literally hunting through the theater to find a hidden treasure whose location they don’t know, and freestyling challenges change nightly depending which line from Waiting for Godot an audience member picks. Then there’s the randomness that isn’t planned: On opening night, Adam’s mic was malfunctioning for the first two numbers, but he and Marta gamely shared her mic without missing a beat until the sound was fixed.
The cast does acknowledge this lack of dramatic stakes with the character of the Actor (Steven R. French), who demands that their show fit the constraints of what’s conventional. But it’s odd that we witness this normal-versus-weird dynamic, which underscores nearly every discussion about geekdom, applied only to the theater. He’s joined by the dancer (Cherylynn Tsushima), who takes on Kevin R. Free in a thrilling dance battle that just gets better each time you see it.
Most ironic, and a pleasant surprise, is that the show’s video-game-heavy content doesn’t alienate the audience. I was certainly worried that, with my limited experience of Tetris, Super Smash Bros., and not much else, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the references. The Neos seem to have taken into account the possibility of entertaining a bunch of n00bs, so they’ve kept things streamlined: Video visuals from Liliana Dirks-Goodman pay homage to the classic Super Mario games and taps into our shared consciousness; other times, it’s a single sound effect or electronic voice that immediately clues us in. (You can listen to one of the standout songs, “Do It,” here.)
The Neos’ passion for the material is evident, and their use of video game quests as metaphor for adulthood will have you contemplating which command on your controller best exemplifies your unfulfilled goals. Most of all, open field makes the case for determining who your “big boss” is and taking life’s conflicts in stride instead of playing by the script of a pixilated world.
This is the final week of You are in an open field’s run at the HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue), with performances Wednesday-Saturday, all at 7 p.m. You can buy tickets ($18) by visiting the link above. For more information about the New York Neo-Futurists, go to nynf.org.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.