Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Victor Musoni, Daniel Chenard and Londen Shannon. Photo by Emily Schwartz.
By Conor McShane
In the past few years, there’s been an upsetting increase in toxic behavior from “nerdy” subcultures. Whether it’s Star Wars fans harassing female cast members on social media or gamers tweeting death threats at female developers, a small but vocal (and largely male) subset of fan culture has emerged online with racist, sexist, or bigoted views, dominating the public’s perception of a given group of fans. Fin Coe’s FUN HARMLESS WARMACHINE, presented by The New Colony at the Den Theatre’s mainstage space, is a deeply unsettling, all-too-timely look at toxic fandom through the lens of a community that’s had its fair share of controversy: the gamers.
The play centers around Tom (Daniel Chenard), a gamer working an unsatisfying job and dealing with some suppressed anger issues. After a very polite rejection by his coworker Melissa (Emily Marso) sends him spiraling, he is introduced to the Order of the Sword, a controversial “family” of gamers known for railing against SJWs on Twitter and leaking their enemies’ personal information on the internet, which they offer to do to Melissa. As Tom is drawn further into this virtual community, his life out in the real world begins to turn around; he gets a dream job at a game company and starts dating Ekaterina (Ayanna Bria Bakari), who he can’t bring himself to tell about his online life. The play then, in a sense, becomes a battle for Tom’s soul, as he’s increasingly torn between his real-world relationships—with Ekaterina along with his best friend DC (Londen Shannon) and his parents (Laura Sturm and Robert Koon)—and his loyalty to his dangerous online brotherhood.
New Colony’s decision to present this play right now ended up being even more timely than they might have imagined. In the wake of an accused sexual assaulter being elevated to the Supreme Court, and the president declaring it a “very scary time for young men in America,” it’s clear that toxic masculinity isn’t going anywhere. On opening night, you could feel the electricity ripple through the room whenever the characters’ rhetoric turned ugly. This was a crowd that was fired up to watch a takedown of entitled male attitudes, and the play mostly delivers on that front. It’s at times blunt in its approach, occasionally over-explaining itself with informational monologues, but that bluntness feels necessary for something as hot-button as this. Coe stops short of placing blame for this behavior on the games themselves, though their normalization of violent wish-fulfillment can’t help but contribute.
Tom and his fellow gamers are tough characters to empathize with, particularly as their words and actions become more and more abhorrent, but Chenard is a likable actor and manages to invest his character with some genuine humanity. Coe’s decision to frame him as a fairly normal, slightly socially awkward guy seems deliberate; it makes his anger and his anti-snowflake diatribes all the more upsetting. Whether or not he deserves a chance at redemption will likely be a litmus test for each individual audience member. Even if he didn’t directly leak Melissa’s information, his consent makes him culpable, and I left the play genuinely unsure of whether or not he deserved a chance to make things right. On one level, this play seems to be about a young man learning that his actions, direct or indirect, can have dire consequences and negatively affect real human lives. It’s too easy to lash out from the comfortable distance of the internet, but as the play’s denouement shows, the real-world repercussions are all too real.
Despite the play’s uncomfortable subject matter, the talented ensemble, under the direction of James Fleming, keep things on track. Other than Chenard, the rest of the cast takes on multiple roles, from fellow members of the Order to Tom’s friends and family to members of the gaming media. The cast gets a big boost from Sotirios Livaditis’s dazzling set –a square white platform surrounded on three sides by color changing white panels–and Claire Chrzan’s evocative lighting, alongside Eric Backus’s immersive, unnerving sound design and score. FUN HARMLESS WARMACHINE might not be lighthearted viewing, but it’s a powerful and necessary look at some of society’s ugliest undercurrents.
FUN HARMLESS WARMACHINE runs through November 4th. For more information visit thenewcolony.org.