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Whether by accident or alchemy, nerd theater has become something of a D.C. trend this season. No Rules Theatre Company’s new production of Madhuri Shekar’s In Love and Warcraft, about a young woman who learns about romance through fantasy role-play, follows Rorschach Theatre’s fall take on Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, about a young woman who learns more about her dead sister through fantasy role-play. Since that’s really all theater is—fantasy role-play—this plumbing of magical-persona subculture seems a natural way to introduce depth and wisdom into stories for young, smart, possibly socially awkward audiences.
From the moment Warcraft’s pre-show announcer likens in-theater cell phone use to trolling, the audience is primed for two hours of predictable geekery: some cute in-jokes about guilds, discussions of dragon-slaying, and the eventual affirmation that fantasy and reality can coexist. But as Shekar’s 2014 work steps further away from swords and sorcery, it reveals a prosaism that neither director Joshua Morgan nor his cast can level up.
The rom-com concerns a college student who excels at virtual Warcraft campaigns and writing for-hire love notes, yet has a fear of intimacy that threatens to derail a promising relationship. Shekar’s play is racy—characters strip to their underwear and undergo gynecological exams, and one describes a male appendage as “a Pokémon that turns into a bug but you’re still in the cocoon.” But the play’s not particularly illuminating about sex, relationships, or Warcraft. At least one of the three would have been nice.
This is not the fault of Anu Yadav, comfortably in her realm in the lead role of Evie. She displays considerable charm as she alternates between confident warrior princess and terrified girlfriend. It’s a fun performance that suggests some subversive links between sex and the pleasure of a good Warcraft raid—when Evie tells her new boyfriend (A.J. Melendez) she doesn’t want sex, he makes her give up the game as equal penance. Instead of going all the way with this, In Love and Warcraft retreats to the safe haven of a cartoonishly promiscuous best friend (Dani Stoller) and an online-only guild boyfriend who’s also a loser (David Johnson).
These are broad jokes, sometimes funny but mainly there to obfuscate the flimsy subtext (love isn’t a strategy game; sex is scary for first-timers). The climax brings a breath of fresh air as it finally enters the game world, the cast ably mimicking the herky-jerky movements of their virtual avatars. But the too-short sequence mostly serves as a reminder of how well She Kills Monsters incorporated the visual bravado of Dungeons & Dragons into its earthbound story.
Morgan, No Rules’ artistic director, brought light and darkness in equal measure to his smart 2012 production Suicide, Inc. Here he’s working pretty much only with light—the play’s approach to young love is as frothy as the Frappuccinos the characters carry around the set. But what love and Warcraft have in common is passion, players who strive on no matter the cost. And nerd theater without passion is like a guild without a tank.
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $30. (703) 820-9771. signature-theatre.org