All’s Fair Game in 'Love and Warcraft'

Top L-R: James Mercer as Ryan and Cassandra Hunter as Evie; Bottom L-R: Madeline Isabel Yagle as Chai and Wesley Guimarães as Tony, in Madhuri Shekar’s "In Love and Warcraft."  (courtesy of A.C.T.)

Although Madhuri Shekar’s In Love and Warcraft debuted in 2013, it feels custom-written for this moment in time. As it delves into the nuances of living a significant part of one's life online, In Love and Warcraft gives its Generation Z characters a shot at love, while reveling in their individual goofy streaks and neuroses. Directed by Peter J. Kuo, and starring six American Conservatory Theater (ACT) Conservatory students, this candid ode to college romance wears a Zoom container comfortably—as if it were meant to be performed that way all along.

In Love and Warcraft was originally slated to be performed in the Spring at ACT’s Costume Shop, so the actors did have the luxury of having already rehearsed together in real life, helping them in transition to all-digital platforms with natural ease. There’s real chemistry between protagonist Evie (Cassandra Hunter) and the object of her tentative desire, Raul (Hernán Angulo)—and plenty of mutual fondness and easy camaraderie among the rest of the ensemble as well.

An avid player of a multi-player fantasy game that Shekar calls “Warcraft Universe,” Evie’s side hustle is writing love letters for her classmates. She's a modern-day Cyrano, whose specialties include Facebook posts, text messages, and heartfelt emails. But Evie’s own love life is suspect. Her teammate Ryan (James Mercer)—an amiable nerd with an affinity for Red Vines—is supposedly her boyfriend, but all of their “dates” take place online. Meanwhile, her sex-positive roommate Kitty (Evangeline Edwards) urges her to break it off and explore the exciting possibilities of physical romance. The opportunity to do so presents itself almost immediately in the form of Raul, a former client of Evie’s, who’s fallen for the loving words she’d written to his now-ex.

If the scenario is a little contrived, what's completely genuine is the relatable awkwardness of Evie’s inexpert foray into the unknown. With Kitty urging her on from the sidelines, Evie screws her courage to the sticking point—until she gets stuck. Uncertain of her own desires, she discovers that the reliable language of love that she’s deployed faithfully on behalf of others is not enough to express the complexities of her own feelings. Meanwhile, a smitten Raul soon discovers that he must also navigate aspects of their relationship that are new to him as well.

Cassandra Hunter as Evie and Hernán Angulo as Raul in Madhuri Shekar’s 'In Love and Warcraft.' (courtesy of A.C.T.)

As Evie, Hunter is a delight to watch. Her every gesture and nose wrinkle speaks volumes of dork-ish. Her excitement on the Warcraft battlefield is matched by her real expertise in the game. That she thinks of romance in game terms makes her valuable as a go-between. But, as she discovers for herself, keeping a scorecard in personal relationships is a recipe for misadventure.

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As Raul, Angulo embodies a lovable ungainliness. Even when he stumbles (and stumble he does) he never crosses the line into the unforgivable. As a co-conspirator, and occasional co-transgressor, Evangeline Edwards brings a vibrant touch to her role, luminous eyes beaming out from her screen in every scene she’s in. If you’ve been wondering about the viability of digital platforms as stages for live performance, being mesmerized by all of the subtleties of expression in each character’s face makes a good case for it.

Over the past few years, the rich world of gamers has emerged as one ripe for exploring through the medium of theater, including the current affairs-parsing Non-Player Character at San Francisco Playhouse, and the virtual reality romp An Invitation Out with Quantum Dragon Theatre. A major challenge for those plays was staging their game scenes without screens, mostly relying on extravagant costumes and occasional video enhancement to give their game worlds a computerized feel. For In Love and Warcraft, the challenge is inverted.

When the characters inhabit their game world, the audience experiences the computer graphic gameplay onscreen, as opposed to the cast dressed up as their avatars. The bigger challenge these actors face is how to stage their non-game action from their respective screens so it appears that they're sharing the same space. By actively manipulating the angles and timing of their devices, they’re able to face each other and interact relatively naturally, their evident rapport helping to blur the borders of their Zoom rooms. Through allusion and some clever choreography, even first kisses and gynecological exams are made plausible.

A scene from Madhuri Shekar’s 'In Love and Warcraft,' with James Mercer as Ryan, Cassandra Hunter as Evie, and Evangeline Edwards as Kitty. (courtesy of A.C.T.)

Rather than relying overmuch on virtual backgrounds, which can make actors’ limbs disappear at random moments, these performers have instead decorated the walls of their homes with cafe signs and medical posters. And if occasionally their couch cushions don’t line up perfectly from screen to screen, suspending disbelief in order to fully embrace the world of the play is what theater audiences do best. It just so happens that this world is one that infiltrates our personal space instead of the other way around. In a sense, it creates a more intimate experience for the audience than a conventionally staged performance.

Another way in which this digital production embraces its unique format is as a co-production with Juneau, Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre. Sharing costs and creative team, ACT and Perseverance demonstrate the potential of collaborating over a distance, opening up a whole realm of possibilities for future partnerships with almost any theater company from around the world.

All in all, this sweetly sincere investigation of analog human connection in a digital age is worth experiencing, whatever the platform.

'In Love and Warcraft' runs live through Sept. 12, and on demand through Sept. 25. Tickets and more details here.