Friday, May 15, 2015

Video Game is Setting For Rebooted Story of Oz

by John Glore

Munchkin costume rendering by designer
Sara Ryung Clement.
Fourteen-year-old Dee lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on a farm in Kansas, until a tornado comes along to disrupt her ordinary life and transport her to a fantastic world.  You probably recognize that set-up—but what happens to Dee in Catherine Trieschmann’s OZ 2.5 is likely to seem both strangely familiar and familiarly strange to those who know its source, L. Frank Baum’s beloved book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

First of all, unlike the original Dorothy, Trieschmann’s Dee is a 21st-century girl, who finds life in rural Kansas all too unexciting.  She craves adventure and some real “life-and-death fun,” and since she can’t find it on the farm, she seeks it in her favorite video game, OZ 2.0.  Much to her Aunt Em’s consternation, Dee is forever glued to her tablet computer, playing her game and chatting with her on-line pal, TOTO_BALLERSHOTCALLER14. 

Lion costume rendering by designer
Sara Ryung Clement.
When that fateful tornado hits, rather than retreating to safety in the storm cellar, Dee stays outside to retrieve her tablet, which cost her two years’ worth of baby-sitting money.  The tornado descends on her and knocks her out, and when she wakes up, she finds herself inside her computer game.

With some help from a couple of munchkins—one friendly, the other not so much—she starts her journey on the yellow-brick road, thrilled to be finally having the adventure she’s been looking for.  Just as in Baum’s original story, Dee meets Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and eventually has to defeat the Witch of the Western Realm—but every time she makes a mistake, she loses a life and the game resets to an earlier level. 

That would be fine if she were still playing the game on her tablet.  But Dee begins to wonder what will happen to her if she loses her last life while inside the game.  Is she trapped in a real life-and-death struggle?  If the witch destroys her … will she wake up back home in Kansas or will she meet a far unhappier and more permanent fate?

The challenges Dee faces become even more daunting when OZ 2.0 spontaneously updates to OZ 2.5 in the middle of her adventure—and the new, improved version proves to have a few nasty bugs.  As she finds herself doubting her ability to succeed—even with the help of Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion —Dee begins to appreciate more and more the comforts of the home and family she left behind.

Playwright IS in Kansas: Catherine Trieschmann's Hometown Inspires Oz Reboot

Playwright Catherine Trieschmann.
Playwright Catherine Trieschmann has something in common with the protagonist of her play.  Eight years ago, her husband’s new job required that she relocate to a small town in Kansas—which felt like the middle of nowhere to her.  When SCR commissioned her to write a new play for the Theatre for Young Audiences series, she reread L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the author’s description of Kansas struck a chord for her:  “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side.  Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.  Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.”

While Dorothy’s tedium is relieved by a visit to the fantasy land of Oz —and Dee’s to its video-game equivalent—Catherine has found escape whenever her playwriting endeavors have taken her away from Kansas.  (This has happened with some frequency, since her many plays have been produced by some of the finest theatres in the nation and even in London, England.) But again like Dorothy, she’s always glad to get home again:  “I go away to somewhere bright and beautiful and perhaps a bit dangerous to make a play and then am happy as a pea in a pod to return to my ho-hum life in Kansas when it's all over.”

But unlike her character, Dee, Catherine has never been much interested in video games, so when she conceived her “reboot” of the Oz story for a technology-obsessed generation, she had to consult with her teenage nephew to get some insights into how such games work.

Why change the story in the first place?  “Adaptations don't work when they merely mimic the original,” she says. “You have to re-create the world, so it’s original and arresting, even to people already familiar with the story. You have to put your own spin on the characters and write new dialogue particular to those voices.  I doubt I used even three lines of dialogue from the book.”

OZ 2.5, which is having its world premiere at SCR, retains all the virtues of the story on which it is based—great characters, adventure, fantasy, humor, surprises—with a fresh approach that will speak directly to any 21st-century child (or adult) who has trouble unplugging from time to time.

The play also offers an important message, which the playwright sums up this way:  “I hope audiences remember that the best part of being alive takes place in communion with other human beings, not in front of a screen.”

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