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‘Leveling Up’ is the wrong choice of show

By Amanda Ehrmann

Section: Opinions

March 10, 2017

­­­Every theater major has to complete two practicum requirements by working tech for a department show, including running lights, sound, costume, backstage crew and ushering, among other jobs. This semester, I needed to complete my last practicum, and the only choice was a show called “Leveling Up.” I went into the process knowing nothing about the show. The first day, all the practicum students watched the last rehearsal before tech began. Something felt off about the show after that night, and I have spent the rest of my time trying to justify working on this show. I still do not have an answer, and I wish I was able to pick a different show (maybe one of the amazing ones the department has produced in the past, like “Intimate Apparel”), but this is my last opportunity.

“Leveling Up” follows three 20-somethings, Zander, Ian and Chuck, living in an apartment and spending their time playing video games, occasionally visited by one of their girlfriends, Jeannie. The first thing off about this show is that it does not pass the Bechdel test.

In order to pass the Bechdel test, a work of fiction must contain two or more named women who talk to each other about something other than boys (extra points if they talk to each other about something other than clothes, accessories or diets). In “Leveling Up,” there is one woman, and all of her interactions are with male characters. Furthermore, they all attempt to flirt with her and question her decision to be with her boyfriend, Zander. If the playwright is trying to point these habits out as negative traits, it is incomplete, as in the end these characters are painted as sympathetic.

Similarly, she is not a well-written female character. She is in a bad relationship with a man who uses and ignores her, and all her decisions are made for her. Even the decision to end the relationship is Zander’s. She is met with sexist remarks about the clothes of an avatar she makes in a video game and is told after an intimate moment between avatars in the same video game that Chuck needed, “Some alone time.” She does not react to this or speak up. If this is a social commentary about how men mistreat women and women do not have the opportunity to act for themselves, it is not explicit and not explored. It just seems like she is too weak, and she is OK with being a game piece in their lives. These notes are not an attack on the women involved in the show. There are so few opportunities for women compared to men, and involvement in a field of interest is an opportunity that women cannot always afford to pass up.

Despite all of this, the big event which really fueled me to question the whole play is the climax. In a cheap, “Ender’s Game”-like spinoff, where Ian is employed by the army to run video game-like simulations (mixed with real applications), he becomes emotional at the prospect of possibly having killed innocent people in a drone strike. When Jeannie tries to comfort him, he viciously attacks her, pinning her down. Despite her complaints, he does not yield. Chuck and Zander enter and rush to her defense. This is a clearly an abusive event (which does not get a warning in the Playbill), but it is never discussed. Instead, when Jeannie returns to pick up her items from Zander’s room, she acts nice toward Ian and wants to continue a friendship with him. She is not traumatized by him or triggered by the attack. She seems completely fine. It almost makes Ian’s actions seem excusable because of his aggravation. The scene does not accurately portray the effects of his actions, and that is extremely problematic.

What kind of message does this offer abuse victims? That they are not strong enough like Jeannie is? That they should forgive their assailants? I need some sense of completion from the play, some mention of the event and how it affects Jeannie (if it does not affect her, why not?), and this just does not happen.

Similarly, because Ian is so troubled we are meant to feel bad for him, instead of the innocent victims he potentially killed. He is painted as the troubled one, the one with the difficult life, instead of the little girl he bombs who lives in a country constantly under attack. The playwright is scheduled to come to the performance on Saturday and I plan to ask her these questions. I am interested in hearing her response, but art should be able to stand by itself without needing to be defended. I think it is important that I illuminate these points before audience is added into the mix, in the hope that observers will consider key moments of the play from a different perspective.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the casting and choice of this play. The actors and production crew are brilliant, hard workers. This production quality is amazing, with a stunning set, and this is not a criticism of those involved. Instead, I would like to question why four white actors are on stage. There is another test, the DuVernay test. In order to pass it, a person of color has to have a fully realized life, complete with hopes and dreams. If the department is insistent on producing a show that does not promote social justice and marginalized stories or at least stories that explore important themes, then why not cast an actor of color to give them that opportunity and endorse representation? The Brandeis theater department has the funding, publicity and access to execute amazing shows that give voice to the voiceless, but instead they chose “Leveling Up.”

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