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Does "Leveling Up" Measure Up?

Kiirstn Pagan

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews The Interrobang Theatre Company's production of "Leveling Up." The show continues at the Mercury Theater in Baltimore through November 16.

The Rousuck review: "Leveling Up"

What’s the likelihood? Baltimore has two plays running simultaneously about drone operators at a military facility in Nevada. The first, “Grounded” at Everyman Theatre – which I reviewed here last week – is about a female drone pilot. The second, “Leveling Up,” is produced by a new Baltimore company called Interrobang; it’s about a video game whiz kid, who’s recruited by the National Security Agency.

Both plays raise some of the same issues about drone warfare – especially the psychological ramifications for the drone operators, who hit targets thousands of miles away from their safe seats in front of screens.

But while “Grounded” is about a veteran Air Force pilot, “Leveling Up” focuses on a 20-something championship gamer named Ian. He’s so good at gaming, he gets paid to “level up” players who aren’t as good.

That was Tim German, who gives a thoroughly believable portrayal of smart, self-assured Ian. Ian spends all his time playing video games in the basement apartment he shares with two roommates – that is, until NSA comes calling. It’s a plot development that playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer based on fact: The military’s recruitment of top gamers to do top secret work alongside drone pilots.

Ian’s friends are concerned about how real killing – as opposed to virtual killing – might affect him. That’s one of the play’s central issues – the impact of this brand-new warfare on those who operate the controls.

Tim German’s cocky Ian claims he’s not worried, that to avoid psychological trauma, the agency also puts fictitious targets on his screen.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that simply. Laufer’s a more interesting playwright than that. In addition to warfare, she also examines the impact of video games on everyday, human interaction. Almost every scene consists of the actors sitting with game controllers in their hands and their eyes glued to screens that are unseen by the audience.

There’s even a near-romance and near-sex scene conducted entirely on an unseen screen by Tavish Forsyth, as one of Ian’s roommates, and Jessie Poole, as the girlfriend of another. Deftly directed by Sarah Scafidi, this virtual love scene sends pheromones over the footlights.

But after a while, there’s a sameness to a play – and a production – with scene after scene of two or three actors seated on a sofa and another in an armchair. Of course, the characters’ immobility is part of the point. Have their lives become so virtual, so insular, they can only connect on screen?

Interrobang Theatre Company was founded by recent UMBC theater grads, so the ages of the actors are ideal for the characters. Only Todd Zachwieja -- who plays the female character’s dim, gullible boyfriend – seemed a bit stiff at the first performance.

That performance was part of the Charm City Fringe Festival – an event that’s an excellent indicator of Baltimore’s burgeoning young theater scene. “Leveling Up” is being performed at the Mercury Theater on N. Charles Street, formerly home to the Strand.

“Interrobang,” by the way, is the name of a new punctuation mark that combines a question mark and an exclamation point. Interrobang’s “Leveling Up” doesn’t always earn that exclamation point, but it definitely poses some up-to-the-minute questions. And after all, leaving an audience mulling over big questions is a hallmark of good theater.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck       

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.