Avatars come to life in ‘In Love and Warcraft’

Like a lot of people nowadays, Evie leads a double life.

In the real world, she’s a mousy college senior who’s never had a boyfriend. But when she goes online she becomes the outrageously sexy and fearless warrior Princess Azareth.

Both Evie and Princess Azareth appear in the new play “In Love and Warcraft” opening Jan. 31 at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage. The romantic comedy by Madhuri Shekar focuses on the ups and downs of a group of friends who, like Evie, use online fantasy role-playing games to escape the complications and potential disappointments of real-life relationships.

“We follow the main characters when they go into their gaming world,” says Shekar, the latest winner of the Alliance/Kendada National Graduate Playwrighting Competition. “We see aspects of their world that couldn’t be expressed in real life. Online they can be who they really want to be.”

Dreaming up characters who become paladins, dwarves, warrior princesses and shamans when they go online is one thing, but actually bringing that fantasy world of Internet gaming onto the stage became an interesting challenge for costume designer Lex Liang, a video game neophyte.

“Before I even finished the script for the first time, I immediately got on my computer and started researching all sorts of stuff about online gaming,” says Liang of LDC Design Associates in New York.

His task was to design two looks for each of the actors, their real-life personae and their avatars in the fictional game Warcraft Universe, heavily inspired by the real game World of Warcraft. The actress who plays Evie (Lily Balsen) must also become Princess Azareth. The character Ryan (Patrick Halley) becomes a battling dwarf, Raul (Evan Cleaver) becomes a paladin, and Kitty (Alexandra Ficken) becomes a shaman when she goes online.

“The avatar is everything that’s in their head manifest into this make-believe character that they can be online,” says Liang, whose previous shows with the Alliance include the 2011 production of “Into the Woods.” “It was interesting to figure out what those characters were going to look like so I dove into the Warcraft research.”

Fourteen designers worked for five weeks to create the looks for the Warcraft characters, whose costumes feature studded leather, armored shoulder-pads, elaborate headpieces, and colored wigs. Coming up with Evie’s sexy Azareth persona and her skimpy purple reptilian leather armor wasn’t about creating a stock Warcraft character but “trying to tell a story about Evie in what she chooses to become online,” Liang says.

Raul might favor a plain white T-shirt and jeans in real life, but his paladin persona has flowing blond hair and wears exotic robes, colorful armor and knee-high boots. Ryan’s dwarf character (the actor will play the avatar on his knees) has a steampunk look with goggles and leather accessories. When Kitty goes online her fearsome, muscular, androgynous shaman wears a Skeletor-like skull mask and huge shoulder pads studded with animal tusks.

While Liang’s costumes will capture the look of the video game characters, surround speakers and sub-woofers will help create the immersive sound world.

“We wanted to create the feeling, the rush that you get when you play a video game through light, sounds and costumes,” says director Laura Kepley. “I want the audience to really feel like they’re in the game.”

And what’s a video role-playing game without a monster and thrilling battle sequences? The design team thought of using projection or a scenic unit to bring the mythical beast to life, but they eventually decided those solutions just wouldn’t be dynamic enough.

“We came up with this idea for a giant puppet-based costume,” says Liang. “Even though this is a stage production, we wanted to take it almost to a cinematic level, like something you’d see coming out of Henson’s creature shop.”

Scottie Rowell, a special crafts artisan, was tasked with creating a giant puppet costume based on Liang’s sketch for the monster. “I started off doing a three-dimensional scale model of the rendering Lex provided me with,” he says. “I flat-patterned off that. I blew it up to the proper scale for the actor to be able to fit inside of it and then I go from there.” Actor Bobby Labartino will wear the giant, red, 0gre-like head and perform on stilts, making the monster eight feet tall.

Having little previous knowledge about online gaming, the behind-the scenes crew has gleaned some surprising insights into that world while working on the production.

“The big thing that I’m learning about this culture of gaming is how that world really does affect and change the real world,” says Kepley. “I had an assumption going in, ‘Oh, it’s all escapism. It’s very isolating.’ But really it’s a great connector, and people are finding connections in that world that they can bring into the real world. Our character Evie is able to rehearse things in the virtual world as a way to begin safely bringing them into the real world. That was a revelation to me.”

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