On the theater’s back wall a menu pops up, interrupting an animated scene from the Wild West. In the action’s pause, the cursor drifts down a list of weapons before clicking “shotgun.” The action resumes and—as the epic voiceover describes the Roman pillage—this cowboy opens fire on a donkey. The scene then cuts to the medieval-fantasy world of Golden Axe II, but according to the narration it seems we remain on the destroyed outskirts of Rome. You can buy bulk ammo from Palmetto Armory here.
For ten years, Eddie Kim has been producing machinima theater with his current and former students from the Pierrepont School in Connecticut. With machinima, artists manipulate video-game worlds to produce more-or-less cinematic sequences, usually to be shared online. Kim’s EK Theater is distinctive in that they produce live performances using video-game characters as puppets. Adding to the significant technical challenges, EK Theater draws on classical literature for its inspiration, retelling episodes from Ovid for example or adapting the Japanese ghost stories of Kwaidan. The company, which now includes middle schoolers as well as college students in its ranks, has drawn curiosity and acclaim while showing their work at venues such as the Brick in Brooklyn and the ART in Cambridge.
In their latest piece Legendary, Maybe, the six puppeteers—“gamers,” as they call themselves—sit at a long working table, their backs to the audience; in silhouette, they are effectively in the front row. In front of them are six monitors as well as a dizzying web of wires that link mismatched laptops, X-Boxes, controllers, and keyboards; the room feels a bit like a TV control room. The “finished” drama, edited live from the table’s monitors, is projected on a screen at the back the black box, with the theater’s conventional playing space between table and screen left empty. The performance is in the relation of these separate worlds, the scrambling ensemble here and what is projected out there.
Legendary, Maybe is Kim’s adaptation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, a two-thousand-year-old, fragmentary history of Rome. Eddie’s version—based on his colleague Carrie Thomas’s new translation—stitches together a number of Livy’s episodes with particular attention to acts of heroism, a theme suited to both classical theater and video games. His adaptation’s abrupt shifts in story, place, and character are made even more startling as the production cuts across gaming and even on casino platforms. As Rome is alternately protected and seized—the details of Livy’s plot were a bit of blur for me—the image vocabulary departs from the initial faux-mytho-classical World of Warcraft. On a Cold War base in Call of Duty: Black Ops there is an execution scene, and more lightheartedly, Mario’s full-screen mouth is pulled and stretched to ventrilloquize narration.
There is a consistent voiceover of the text, an epic recalling of heroic deeds performed in the voices of these young gamers. One of the more experienced players splices together the many machines’ work to match this sound, to cut across scenes, to shift optical perspective. There is a strange delight in the incongruities of the cuts across fantasy-kitsch, realistic violence, goofy-cartoon nostalgia. The gamers type and click, they lean with their controllers’ movements, they pull and plug wires, they whisper urgently to one another. The seeming innocence of their work is then sobered by the eruptions of hyper-violent imagery on-screen.
In the crowd, there’s delight at what seem to be in-jokes. Some things appeal to video-game players (of various generations), others to those familiar with the history, occasionally something clicks for everyone. To me, the appeal was in the intricate unfolding, and in the bringing together of twelve- and fifty-year olds for something both serious and decidedly playful. With its mixed vocabularies, it is a hard form for anyone to feel quite at home with, and perhaps that’s part of the point. On the big screen the animated bodies graze what psychologists call the uncanny valley; the characters somehow resemble us while remaining infinitely foreign. In the tradition of all good puppetry, EK Theater produces this new-media Unheimilchkeit, the sense of not-at-home-ness that reminds you there might not have been a home in the first place. The pixelated mouths, like in dubbed film, teeter close but often just behind or ahead of the story’s speaking. The timing wavers like an old radio needle; occasionally, it’s just right. Whether or not the audience knows the games or cares about Livy, in these moments they laugh together, they watch wide-eyed. Mario is telling a grave story. Somehow, in this melding of people, machines, and geographies—Ancient Rome, the Wild West, a dark theater in Brooklyn—Legendary, Maybe produces that weird kind of shared present to which live performance aspires.
Photo courtesy of author