[A D8 with a D&D]
Dungeons and Dragons has had a meteoric rise in recent years, which some put down to the resurgence of 80’s culture – with the game being heavily featured in Stranger Things – alongside the huge success of RPG shows – namely Critical Role and The Adventure Zone (Can I Get an Underground Location and a Mythical Creature? even references these last two shows as inspiration). This positive sentiment is clearly shared by fans of these shows and members of the D&D community, who are more than willing to support emerging performances like this, as Can I Get an Underground Location and a Mythical Creature? has a nearly sold out run at this year’s Fringe Festival. Improv troupe Improverished are the group behind this show, and the premise is an entertaining twist on a regular liveplay RPG game. Instead of watching a group play D&D at a table, or listening to a pre-recorded session, Can I Get an Underground Location and a Mythical Creature? has the audience watching live as the actors act out the game as their characters.
Packing into the much beloved Auckland board-game café Cakes and Ladders, the audience consists of all ages buzzing with excitement for the performance ahead. The atmosphere is laidback, with the café still serving, and many patrons picking up a coffee or hot chocolate before relaxing into their chairs as if this was standard fare for a Tuesday evening at their local haunt.
The energetic Rebecca Stubbing welcomes the audience to the show before enlisting certain audience members to help set up a scenario for the night’s improv. This includes gathering audience member’s names for the characters (Stella and Jamison), their classes (Rogue and Cleric), and a perfect holiday destination (a tractor factory??). This audience interaction is a strong element that continues throughout the show, with audience members physically rolling a large dice for the characters’ dice rolls.
Stella and Jamison, played by Francesca Browne and Rebecca Stubbing respectively, are regaling from the get go. Two twins (audience choice) who struggle with the mutual desire to please their intractably unimpressed father, they are quickly set on the mission that Jed Stanton – the Dungeon Master, or DM – begins to weave for them. Stubbing and Browne immediately form a natural rapport, as a dynamic double act with excellent comedic timing. They are by far the best aspects of the performance, and are primarily responsible for developing the engaging, if incredibly silly narrative of the night’s show. When it is just the twins and their DM, Stanton, on-stage – the sparks fly with Stanton’s sardonic meta-commentary adding to the humour and pace of the performance. Stanton does an admirable job manoeuvring his players/performers through a simplistic scenario, with high energy as he bounces about the small space, poking fun at and chidingly guiding his player’s choices. Celina Thompson and Ryan Strickland also get honourable mentions, creating playful interludes and interactions for the twins as they continue on their quest – one a kamikaze goblin, the other a fellow follower of “Fire-Jésus”.
The show uses an interesting framework. After the initial instructions are done, the entire cast begin on-stage behaving as if they are all high-school students gathering at the DM’s house before “band practice”. This idea of the game solely being run as a performance between these friends and the DM is touched upon lightly as the show continues. It allows questions to be flung at the DM and excuses some mistakes made by players, and the back-and-forth between players and the DM, in and out of character. It is something the troupe should seriously work on developing for future shows, where a solid intro and conclusion would allow for a more cohesive and engaging performance in the future.
The troupe could also think creatively about how to present this scenario in an original manner, as the framework is initially introduced with a tired narrative of dweebish nerds gathering in a basement who, if they could be on the rugby team, would never be playing Dungeons and Dragons. This perception of Dungeons and Dragons is trite and a frankly inaccurate representation of the game in its present form. Nerds cannot truly claim to be on the fringe anymore, with comics, sci-fi, and fantasy at their most popular and key participants in today’s mainstream culture. Dungeon’s and Dragons is cool now. Critical Role’s Kickstarter for their animated series was the most-funded film/video project in Kickstarter history. Joe Manangiello, Vin Diesel, Jon Favreau, Drew Barrymore are a few of the celebrity D&D players out there! We even have our own NZ iterations, with comedy podcast/live show Waterdeep, Mountain High starring a variety of local Kiwi comedians.
The show has a rawness to it that is at times charming and frustrating. The playful resourcefulness of fashioning makeshift costumes and props from the dress-up box at the back is authentic to the original grassroots spirit of D&D. The handmade posters of monsters and The Adventure Zone references add to this, giving a cheery toybox atmosphere to the entire proceedings. However the troupe have further to go on developing their listening skills and their awareness of story-craft and its relationship with audience engagement, where at times the narrative begins to drag and they do not do enough to reinvigorate the story and move away from these dead weights on their progression.
The audience overall find the show highly entertaining, with the troupe eliciting raucous laughter and genuine investment in this short-lived story. The most affecting part of the show was the young girl I sat next to who sketched an excellent character portrait of Jamison on her phone as the show went on. This is part of the beauty of Dungeons and Dragons, where audiences and participants both are able to find meaning, inspiration and joy in these shared imaginative experiences. Can I Get an Underground Location and a Mythical Creature? is a direct descendant of this process, and I’m glad to see continuing this cycle through their performances. Although this show is undercooked, it hails back to the core roots of D&D and they can only roll higher from here.
Can I Get an Underground Location and a Mythical Creature? played various locations as part of Auckland Fringe 29 February to 4 March, 2020.