Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Emily Schartz.
The New Colony’s new offering, Fun Harmless Warmachine, depicts a seductive and powerful alt-right that is anything but “fun” and “harmless” and shows how easily a lonely person might fall into its trap.
Tom (Daniel Chenard) is that loner. Stuck in a dead-end job by day, he is a super gamer at night, just the guy you’d want to have on your side in any multiplayer game because he has honed his skills to expert level. That ability, though, doesn’t count much in real life, where job reviews are increasingly bad and he is flat out denied by a woman he would like to get to know better. He spends all of his time playing games online with people he doesn’t know in real life and doing repetitive things with the one good friend he does have, DC (Londen Shannon), and he’s beginning to feel depressed about his existence.
That’s when he meets (online) members of a men’s power group, the Order of the Sword, who entice him with powerful feelings of belonging that are irresistible to someone who doesn’t like being the loner that he is. It doesn’t take long, however, for the Order to show its true colors, as it provokes him into allowing its members to harass and pursue the unfortunate young woman (Emily Marso) who rejected him.
Tom isn’t an inherently bad guy. In fact, one of the key aspects of the play is a romance he has with a woman he meets at a party. Kat (Ayanna Bria Bakari) almost immediately feels he is worth her time, and the scenes with Bakari and Chenard together ground this intense drama in the real world. In the online world, meanwhile, Tom is getting involved more and more inextricably with the Order, unwittingly allowing its leaders (Robert Koon and Travis Barnhart) to use his Twitter handle to peddle its hate. He ignores his family (Koon, Victor Marso and Laura Sturm) even more than he had before as he falls more and more under the spell of the Order.
This compelling play makes a persuasive argument about just how easy it is to fall into an online hate group. Tom does nothing with ugly intention but the results are nonetheless horrible because the people who make up the Order tell themselves that their victims deserve punishment. These victims (almost exclusively women) have their entire lives posted on the web and are subjected to constant rape and death threats from people they don’t even know, and their lives are never going to be the same. In a week when we have seen the real-life result of this kind of unbridled online assault on Christine Blasey Ford, who can’t even return to her home due to death threats, this play couldn’t be more timely.
Sotirios Livaditis’s set is a simple raised platform surrounded by an array of square white screens that light up to simulate the visual power of online gaming. Aided by Claire Chrzan’s brilliant lighting design and Eric Bachus’s original music and sound, director James Fleming allows the story to play out simultaneously in the real world and the online world. Actors wear dark sunglasses and rarely look at each other directly while gaming. Tom, being who he is, hardly looks at anyone in real life other than the women he is attracted to. The pounding music and the gaming effects combine to immerse us into his world from the opening minute, and Fleming’s blocking and choreography cement the Order into a single monolithic and vicious whole.
Still, it is Chenard who has to hold this together, showing the seduction of the Order but at the same time reminding us, as he becomes more and more a part of it, that he never wanted it to go where it has gone. He just wanted to belong to something. And it is Bakari and Marso (and to a lesser extent Sturm as Tom’s mother and a police officer out to avenge these women) who have to provide the emotional backbone of the play; both actresses have remarkable scenes with Chenard that expose the core dysfunction of his mind and the pain he has brought not only to them but to himself.
Fun Harmless Warmachine, written by New Colony Co-Artistic Director Fin Coe, is a riveting, disturbing glimpse into a world most of us don’t know and wouldn’t understand if we did. It is easy to vilify the alt-Right, and they generally deserve it; this play indicates that they are willing to use and gaslight even their own. The frightening part of this play is the simple fact that the monster it depicts is real and is made up of human beings who have convinced themselves that others are out to get them, which gives them the right to pre-emptive strikes. There is no emotion for the victims in the Order’s militaristic membership, no remorse possible because they don’t see the evil they are doing as evil. They are utterly self-righteous, and this, as much as anything else, is why they are dangerous. Fun Harmless Warmachine is a wake-up call about the darkness within us all and how easily that darkness can be co-opted by hate groups if we are not careful. And it is an exposé of the power they have. This is a real-life horror story, and any one of us can find ourselves a victim.
Fun Harmless Warmachine is now playing The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago until Nov 4. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.