A 4-Bit Player in an 8-Bit World | “Claudio Quest” at Chance Theatre

Claudio Quest (Chance)I have a confession to make: I’m not a video gamer. Although at times I have played games on the computer, they have all been text-based, starting with the lunar landing game on the HP 3000C. I’ve played Adventure and Zork, and my level of dungeon games are things like nethack and larn. But those video games? Perhaps Pong?

So I went into the new musical Claudio Quest, opening this week at the Chance Theatre (FB), with the same sense of disconnection I felt when I saw Bard Fiction when I had never seen Pulp FictionClaudio Quest, featuring music, lyrics, and book by Drew Fornarola (FB) and Marshall Pailet (FB), tells the story of a video game roughly analagous (so I’m told) to Super Mario Brothers. The rough conceit of the bulk of this musical is that we are in the game itself: the characters have come to life, and we are seeing their doubts, fears, and questioning of their motives. In particular, and to put it in Mario terms, it is the story not of Mario (Claudio) but of Player 2 — Luigi (Luis) — and how does he face his position of being second banana and having to become a hero.

I’ll note that figuring out that aspect of the story didn’t come clearly: I found myself wondering for much of the first act where the story was going: who were we rooting for, what was the ultimate goal. As this was a preview performance of a developing musical, perhaps that is something worth improving: having the goal and motivation be a little clearer in the first few establishing songs.

The video game story constituted the bulk of the musical; it was wrapped and interspersed with a real-world wordless story of two brothers: one who continually played the game Claudio Quest and kept winning, and his younger brother who seemingly longed to play with him. The message and relationship between these two worlds came through by the end, but I found myself wanted to know more about these two other than just seeing them with cartridges, controllers, and a screen.

The game story itself supposedly paralleled Super Mario Bros, but veered just enough to avoid a trademark violation. The heroic older brother Claudio, in a blue jumpsuit, was on a continual quest to rescue Princess Poinsettia of the Eggplant Kingdom, who had been kidnapped by the evil Fire-Breathing Platypus Bruiser. Claudio was Player 1, and wore the golden eggplant, which allowed him to jump upon and destroy the various creatures set to attack him.  He was aided by his younger Brother  and the dinosaur Y. The Younger Brother, Luis, was Player 2 and wore an orange jumpsuit; he carried Claudio’s backpack and was able to transfer extra lives to Claudio. The Princess’s sister, Princess Fish, also wanted to be a player but the game wasn’t designed that way.

As the show went on, self-awareness of the characters increased, and Luis and Fish increasingly were able to play and introduce new ideas into the Eggplant Kingdom. Basically, they added a dimension to their two-dimensional lives. When this existential crisis resulting in Claudio losing his last life, it remained for Luis and Fish to figure out how to rescue the Princess and save the kingdom.

OK, OK. I’m sure by now you’re going: A musical about a video game? That’s as stupid as a movie about a board game., or a musical about a kid’s cartoon. But as this show went on, there was a surprising depth to the questions raised. What particularly comes to mind is near the end of the first act where the two main videogame characters are arguing about self-will and self-determination? Do they have it? Is there the ability to do what they can do preordained or controlled by some outside higher power, or do they have the ability to take control of their own lives? In facing such a question, they are asking themselves something that has been a question for religious folks for years: does God direct our actions and pre-ordain our destiny, or are we free to do whatever we want to do with our lives. In many ways, this is a similar question to that raised in Pailet’s earlier musical, Triassic Parq, which explored the world of Jurassic Park from the point of view of the dinosaurs, and their becoming self-aware and wanting to take control of their lives.

The musical also explored the question of what makes a hero? A heroes only the people who constantly win, and win in the same way everytime? Can one be a hero and still have doubts and fears? Are heroes the people who come up with new ways to do things, of new solutions? Most importantly, are heroes the people that appreciate the diversity around them, and who use that diversity to learn new ways to attack problems and survive, which changing their world along the way.

For an 8-bit videogame, it had surprising depth.

Under Pailet (FB)’s direction, the actors made a similar transformation in directionality. Initally, in the videogame world, actors moved very two-dimensionally: jerky, up and down, never forward and back. As the game and story progressed, their movement became three dimensional. They could turn and face, they could kick and rotate. This was also reflected in the staging — more on that later.

I’ll note that there was a similar transformation in the music itself. I recently listened to a fascinating episode of the 20 KHz podcast on 8-bit sounds. This was a unique world, very different than our sounds of today. Chips were designed to work independent of the CPU; they weren’t playing prerecorded songs but generating songs based on chords supported by the chips in a very limited fashion. This uniqueness was paralleled in the score. Songs, under the orchestration and musical direction of Ryan O’Connell (FB), went from being primarily 8-bit to more fully realised. The songs themselves were of a quality similar to Triassic or Loch Ness. Some had surprising depth, some were quite funny (in particular, the Platypus Song, and a number were quite cute. Unfortunately — and this could be a side-effect of only seeing the show once — I didn’t walk out humming any of them.

Turning to the performances: the cast consisted of a number of folks we’d seen before at other Chance musicals and elsewhere around the Southern California stages. The performances overall were good, with a few interesting quirks and looks that caught the eye and stuck in the head.

Our heroes — Claudio and Luis — were played by Beau Brians (FB) and Andrew Puente (FB), respectively. Both brought quite a bit of character to the show, and both had wonderful singing voices. Brians’ Claudio had the correct amount of bravado and swagger, while Puente’s Luis had the right hesitancy one would expect from a Player 2.

The heroines, Princess Poinsettia and Princess Fish, were played by Kim Dalton (FB) and Monika Pena (FB), respectively. We have seen Kim in a number of shows now (Dogfight, Toxic Avenger), and she always brings a strong performance and a great voice to any role. Her role gets the chance to shine in the latter half of Act II; the writing has her role more two dimensional earlier in the show. Her number with Bruiser and the scene in the dungeon are great. Pena’s Fish, in contrast, breaks out of the gate running demanding to be herself on her own term. The actress brings a spunk and vitality to the character that is quite a bit of fun to watch. Both sang and moved very well.

The villain, Bruiser the Platypus, was portrayed by Miguel Cardenas/FB. In the first act, Cardenas’s character was mostly bluster. However, in the second act, his number with Poinsettia, “The Platypus Song”, was just hilarious. He was also great in his interactions with his therapist.

All of the other characters (with two exceptions) were played by members of the ensemble: Kellie Spill (FB) (Engafink / Ensemble); Amy Rebecca King/FB (King Eggplant / Ensemble); Elise Borgfeldt (FB) (Kevin the Turtle / Ensemble); Ashley Arlene Nelson (FB) (Boof / Ensemble); Joseph Ott/FB (Big Brother / Gary / Ensemble); and Jimmy Saiz (FB) (Steve the Turtle / Ensemble). I would like to single out a few performers here. First, Ashley Arlene Nelson (FB). Ms. Nelson has been the lead in Dogfight and the lead in the recent Little Woman; she’s in the ensemble here and also serves as what I guess would be the narrator in the game. In that latter role, she is hilarious. As always, she is a singing and dancing and comedic joy to watch. Next, Amy Rebecca King/FB.  When featured as King Eggplant, Ms. King is extremely funny and a joy to watch. Lastly, there are the two turtles, who get a very funny scene in the second act.

Rounding out the cast were Jack Reid, alternating with Dylan Shuba as Little Brother. I’m not sure which one we saw, but whichever it was, there were some wonderful facial expressions. Lastly, there was Y, who played himself. I regretfully must comment that his performance was a bit wooden.

The choreography was by Maxx Reed (FB), and the Scenic Design was by Fred Kinney. Chris Baab and Jalen Morgan were the welders. There’s a reason I lump all of these together for this show. Although there was dancing — and excellent dancing — choreography is also movement. That’s where the scenic design came in, with a design reminscent of Loch Ness with multiple moving platforms. These were used to give the suggestion of levels in the video screen, and were constantly moving in and out. This meant that the characters were also moving on top of moving platforms and from platform to platform. That’s choreography, my friends: lots of well-executed movement that created magic without anyone getting hurt.

The sound design was by Ryan Brodkin (FB), with lighting design by Matt Schleicher (FB). Both were executed well with clear sound. The lighting was particularly interesting, using a type of moving light that I hadn’t seen before. Animation was by Justin Melillo (FB), and primarily consisted of a great video game opening for the show. The costume design by Rachael Lorenzetti was suitably 8-bit appropriate and entertaining. Makeup and hair design was by Marci Alberti/FB and was character appropriate (especially Princess Fish’s stache). Courtny Greenough/FB  was the Stage Manager.

Claudio Quest continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) through February 26, 2017. It’s a cute musical, well worth seeing for the performances, the creativity, and if you are in to video games and Super Mario Brothers. Tickets are available through the Chance website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February 2017 starts with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals.; we’re also seeing Allegiance – A New Musical (recorded on Broadway) at the AMC Promenade on Sun 2/19. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month. April starts with Cats Paw at Actors Co-op (FB) and a concert with Tom Paxton and the DonJuans at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB) (shifting Cats Paws to an afternoon matinee that day, or the Sunday matinee the weekend before). The next day brings the Colburn Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The next weekend is currently open (and will likely stay that way). Mid-April brings Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB). That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

P.S.: Mostly so I can find it later, here’s my predictions of what will go on tour and where they will end up. The Hollywood Pantages (FB) announces February 7th.