Neighborhood 3 photo by Adam Bartelt

StageWest presents dystopian ‘Neighborhood 3’

Theatre Review by Michael Morain / Des Moines Register 
mmorain@dmreg.com

So what happens when the teenagers playing their zombie-slashing video game get confused and start slashing up stuff in real life?

That’s the basic question in Jennifer Haley’s dystopian “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom,” which StageWest rebooted this weekend at the Des Moines Social Club just two years after the Social Club’s own company staged it at the old Kirkwood Hotel.

Zachary Mannheimer directed both productions, but the new one is slicker and more immersive, with special effects that blur the lines between reality and virtual reality as soon as you step in the door. The blippy music from “Mario Brothers” and “Tetris” plays on a loop while you take your seat on either side of a stylized suburban landscape with stepping stones, lawn ornaments and a swimming pool. As the show starts, video projections lead you through a tidy digital neighborhood that could be in Ankeny or Waukee. (Jay Jagim designed the set. Chris Williams and Josh Jepson teamed up to create the sound and video elements.)

Three of the four fully committed actors from two years ago (James Serpento, Alissa Tschetter-Siedschlaw and Nick Cornelison) and a gutsy newcomer (Glori Dei Filippone) cover all of the roles ñ a handful of disengaged parents and their sullen, profanity-spewing kids. And although the 75-minute drama doesn’t allow us to really know the characters ñ or care much about them ñ it builds a credible case that something like this could really happen. All it takes to mistake someone for an avatar is a little imagination.

That’s even more true now than when the play premiered in 2008. In an overstimulated era of “interactivity” and “audience engagement,” programmers are inventing countless new ways to make games more realistic and addictive than ever. Just think of the virtual currencies (like Bitcoin) and wrap-around imagery (in Google Glass) and GPS navigation (for geocaching). This summer the Register produced a virtual 3D tour of a real Iowa farm with a new program called Oculus Rift.

Those innovations, by themselves, are harmless — but so was Pandora’s box. So just as the Cold War gave us spy movies, and 9/11 inspired “Homeland” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the new age of technology has given us new worries, which “Neighborhood 3” effectively exploits.

Are we more plugged in to our virtual lives than our real ones? And how much longer will we be able to tell the difference?

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