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No Winning Moves, But Still We Play
In virtual productions from Rattlestick and Exponential, we're in control—up to a point
I played some games this week. Or, in one instance, watched other people play. The games were also theater.
First up was Addressless, an interactive show which takes audiences through the brutal daily choices of homelessness. Produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Addressless is performed live on Zoom and moves between pre-filmed scenes and audience interaction. At pivotal moments in the lives of three unhoused people, viewers decide which path the characters should follow next.
The most impressive element of Addressless, which was written by Jonathan Payne and created/directed by Martin Boross, is its direct inclusion of activist voices. Shams DaBaron, who came to prominence as a voice of homeless housed on the Upper West Side during the height of the pandemic, is not only a consultant but also performs as Wallace, one of the three characters whose fate we control. DaBaron is truly excellent, a natural and unforced performer who grounds the piece even as it gradually succumbs to after-school-special tendencies.
My breakout group controlled the fate of Louis (Joey Auzenne), a veteran struggling to receive decent medical care. We made admittedly terrible choices for Louis, and he ended the play in a worse place than he’d started. In a startling final monologue, beautifully delivered by Auzenne, Louis looked resignedly to a bleak road ahead following a series of circumstances entirely out of his control.
The interactive element is where Addressless falls short. The show does avoid the potential ickiness of treating homelessness like a game—the choices posed are real ones that unhoused people do face each day, like weighing the relative dangers of a shelter vs. outdoor conditions.
The issue, though, is in asking your audience to pick between two terrible options, then watch negative consequences play out either way. The cast grew evidently frustrated at times when my audience, presented with two bad choices, would simply go silent. But we were well ahead of the show’s point, truthful though it is: no matter their choices, the homeless are trapped in a failing system.
I felt more personal investment in Still Goes (The Game), even though I wasn’t in control. Created by Nola Latty and presented as part of The Exponential Festival, Still Goes is about two dogs, Lysol and Spot, who seek to become human so they can hold each other. They’re actually only dogs briefly, for a cute opening animation. Then Still Goes becomes a video game, and Lysol and Spot become human figures exploring a dreamland of Latty’s creation.
Still Goes will eventually be a game you can actually play. But there was something uniquely calming about just watching Latty and designer/coder Thomas Wagner move through it, narrating together with a tranquil, melancholy air.
First Lysol and Spot move through a field of rabbits, who welcome them to their new bodies. Then they swim through an ocean, meeting a hammerhead shark who asks, “Hey, so…did you love me, or did I misunderstand?” An escape raft takes them to a Shining-esque house, where the paintings ask: “Why do you miss the way things were before?” Finally they land inside a theater, where a bug at a microphone insists the two will always be dogs, at least in their souls: “Here’s the truth - you’ll only ever be lost.” Lysol disappears, and Spot sets off to find him again as the game ends.
Still Goes is a getaway into dreams, a pleasingly simple concept brought to vibrant life in Wagner’s delightfully blocky designs. The spaces he conjures are vast and often desolate, but the pair move through them together, keeping each other—and us—company. They are ultimately separated, but I felt little doubt that Lysol and Spot would one day be reunited again, and finally get to hold hands.
Also part of Exponential was Traffic, a hybrid performance and interactive video game. Audience members picked a car to control out of 45 stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then over eight rounds we attempted, hopelessly, to work collaboratively and escape gridlock together. Each of our moves (Straight, Merge Left, Honk, etc.) were fulfilled by on-site staff, reading them out as they went. Meanwhile—there’s a lot going on in this one—the stories of characters stuck in traffic play out in text form on your phone, and in voiceover on the stream.
As the show proceeds, things get increasingly bizarre. New move options like “Be somewhere else” (which fills the screen with fluffy clouds) and “Be someone else” (which swaps you with another car) open up. It’s all a lead-up, in the end, to total chaos and destruction.
Traffic is logistically complex, and struggled with some technical problems in this tryout run. None of my commands for my car were actually followed, an issue others complained of in the chat. Though maybe this was a deliberate tactic to heighten our road rage.
Yet even the glitches felt like a natural part of Traffic’s chaos. As gridlock gave way to mayhem, the show’s rules flew out the window anyway, and the board before us was completely wrecked: cars strewn across, litter scattered everywhere, even an egg cracked from above. “It’s the eventual entropy of our individual decisions,” as one commenter put it. It’s also very entertaining.
No sooner is the chaos over then a new board appears, covering over the mess like it never happened. Will we do any better this time? Maybe a little bit, maybe not. The cycles continue. Beep beep, honk honk.