Now, in DC theatre, video games are hot. From Rorschach’s She Kills Monsters to Flying V’s The Oregon Trail and Molotov’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, audiences (and Artistic Directors) can’t seem to get enough virtual reality in their live performances. The smallish, youngish Washington Rogues have now thrown their hat into the digital ring with Jennifer Lane’s Agents of Azeroth, a high-concept smash up of government agents and World of Warcraft fanatics. And although Agents has its flaws, it is held aloft by director Ryan S. Taylor’s smart and agile staging, as well as a pair of powerhouse performances by lead female actors Megan Behm and Dillon Greenberg. Funny, original, and at times, mindbending, Agents of Azeroth asks a lot of tough questions – and has a geeky good time doing it.
Agents of Azeroth is inspired by the quirky fact, learned only after Edward Snowden leaked a trove of classified government data, that the NSA was spending resources to investigate the notoriously nerdy Internet game, the World of Warcraft. And indeed, the show begins with two career NSA agents (Megan Behm and J. Shawn Durham) who daily strap on a headset, do battle with orcs and converse with the world’s most famous Geek Community.
Director Ryan S. Taylor does a nice job of keeping the nerdiness authentic – I haven’t had the pleasure of playing WoW, but after seeing the show I feel like I have because the embedded background information and countless allusions to obscure aspects of the game made me feel like an insider. Likewise, Taylor and the cast smoothly draw out the inherent humor of government agents spending all day in a basement, playing video games. Whereas Behm’s character (User name: Abracadaver) is a dyed in the wool WoW freak, Durham (who uses the less flashy handle Albondigas) is a stone cold agent who resents that his training is being used to catch trolls, not terrorists.
The lingering doubts both agents harbor about their overall importance to Uncle Sam leads them to jump on a relatively minor red flag: an improper relationship between 15 year old math prodigy Lucy (Dillon Greenberg) and 34 year-old mathematics professor Wallace (Grant Cloyd). When they dig deeper and realize that Lucy may be involved in much more serious hacking violations, the walls start to close in on the star cross’d WoW lovers. An unexpected plot twist ends the show on an ambiguous note, but along the way there are some heavy questions asked about government surveillance, the meaning of mathematics, and the moral questions surrounding sexual deviance.
Unfortunately, Playwright Jennifer Lane seems to be enamored with so many things, and so eager to explore them all, that the result is I often lost the forest for the trees. I wondered: is this piece ultimately a diatribe against bulk online data collection? A paean to Snowden? An attempt to connect the surveillance state and sexual predators? I left shaking my head in thematic confusion.
However, I also left shaking my head in wonder at the amazingly nuanced and grounded performances of Megan Behm and Dillon Greenberg. Behm, who’s worked a lot in town as both an actor and director, creates a character who is organic and fun to watch. She is a goofy World of Warcraft nerd, yes, and that is apparent. But she is also an agent of the National Security Agency, and Behm brings a certain gravitas and moral clarity that is always lurking right underneath her “Cool, dude!” demeanor.
For her part, Dillon Greenberg, a recent Catholic University graduate, portrays Lucy with a deft hand. She captures the burden of being 15 years-old and possessing a mind most adults would envy. Intellectually rigorous, morally righteous, but with all the hormonal chaos of high school, Greenberg’s Lucy is a sort of cult hero for the teenage female misfit. The fact that she ultimately becomes a victim of her own brain is fitting in a play where more data does not necessarily bring more clarity or peace.
Director Ryan S. Taylor and Scenic Designer Patrick Lord make the best out of a difficult Flashpoint space, opting to configure the stage along the long wall. This breadth allows the space to have several different areas that “belong” to various characters, which makes the separation of sub plots a bit more clear. However, it also requires some vigorous tennis match head turning during some scenes where actors stand far apart.
Patrick Lord’s scenic design is lovely and detailed, but the projections are problematic. They are mostly animations of what real WoW gameplay looks like, which does indeed add a much needed visual aid, but they are so blurry they end up being more distracting than edifying.
Martha Mountain manages some nice lighting moments (again, in a challengingly shallow space), and Costume/Props Designer Jesse Shipley hits an authentic note by draping her nerds in jeans and Nirvana T-shirts. I particularly enjoyed the multiple candy colored wigs that Lucy carefully combs each night.
It is true that I didn’t walk out of Agents of Azeroth with a single question or message burning in my head. But Agents of Azeroth is a good show, and it is original, funny, and entertaining. Don’t expect to “get it,” because “it” is not one thing. And that’s closer to reality than any game of WoW.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with no intermission.