True gamers, especially nostalgic ones, will appreciate The New Colony’s world premiere of Merge. Closing out its 2016 season, this 90-minute, fast-paced, and often funny, performance at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage spotlights the roller-coaster history of Atari, a pioneer manufacturer of video arcade games.
Written by Spenser Davis and directed by Andrew Hobgood, Merge provides an inside look at the tumultuous ups and downs of the video game company from its start in the early 1970's.
The script is Davis’ first original full-length play. Submitted through The New Colony’s writers program, it made quite an impression on company members. “Merge was the rare instance of a story flying off the page with such ferocity that Andrew and I needed to get our ensemble in the room immediately,” said Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder. “Spenser Davis’ hilarious and insightful script will welcome onstage the largest cast The New Colony has assembled since our first season.”
Despite the size, Hobgood’s staging of the huge 16-member cast in such a small space was mostly effective. However, at times, when the full cast was onstage, the fast-talking and screaming could be a bit overwhelming.
The set design was one of the biggest stars of this production with a video arcade cabinet as the backdrop along with a bright neon color scheme.
The opening action starts in the late 70's around the time Atari, hugely successful with its arcade and home console video games but cash-strapped, merged with Warner Bros. Atari employees are frazzled by the corporate takeover and the impact ricochets throughout the company as key players leave. Pot smoking, Jacuzzi parties and eccentric behaviors had fueled Atari’s workplace during its rise. When they have to sell to Warner Bros. to stay afloat, along with the influx of corporate cash comes corporate structure and new requirements, including wearing socks.
The use of the flashback technique and flexible, moving set pieces allow the action to flow seamlessly back through time as the audience is quickly introduced to Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Like a video game version of the odd couple, these two opposite personalities are behind one of the fastest growing companies in America.
Their different styles, business philosophy, especially on how to handle lawsuits from competition, and Bushnell’s hard-driving ambition, eventually force Dabney out of the company. Ironically Bushnell himself is ousted as CEO after the Warner Bros. merger, paving the way for a more straight-laced chief in Stuart Nygard. It was this move that prompted many of the remaining programmers who had been with Atari from the beginning to jump ship and align with a competing company.
In one of the more fascinating, yet somewhat out-of-place scenes, a courtroom battle that feels more like an episode of “Wild ‘N Out” ensues between Warner Bros. and that rival. Dabney returns at a pivotal moment providing information that will not only have long-lasting repercussions for Warner Bros. but the video game industry as a whole.
Merge is creative and fun and packs a lot of history in 90 minutes. A huge and high-energy cast and creative staging keep the story moving in a compelling fashion.
Merge is now playing at The Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage through November 13, 2016. Tickets are available at www.thenewcolony.org.