By Guy Webster
The Sims is a game that entered pop culture in 2000 and promptly never left. Where else can one create a marriage, end a career, avoid death or curate a birth with a click of a finger? As a social simulation game it affords one an alluring sense of control over the lives of any character one chooses to create. With Frenzy Theatre’s MOTHERLOD_^E, the world of The Sims comes to Theatre Works. Technically impressive and often absurdly hilarious, it is a 65-minute deep dive into this digital world that subtly considers the reasons behind its enduring popularity. Despite issues of clarity and cohesion, it boasts enough laughs to entertain and entrance in equal measure.
We open on a morning much like any other in the world of The Sims. A man emerges from the shower in a suit to ‘practice charisma’ in the mirror (a combination of finger guns and ‘Oh yehs’) while another character wanders the house commanded to ‘eat breakfast’. Even for those who have never played the game, the style of The Sims is immediately recognisable – a combination of exaggerated expressions, a certain springy physicality and the unique vocalisations known as ‘Simlish’. Despite the absence of the classic green-diamond ‘Plumbobs’, director Belle Hansen and her team have recreated this world with love and an impressive attention to detail.
Leading the charge of this recreation are the show’s ten-strong ensemble of actors, almost all of whom deliver side-splittingly accurate performances as various Sim-style characters. Bugs Baschera and Isabella Patane were particular highlights, each boasting a near super-human control over facial expressions and physicality. Their commitment to their roles led to many of the show’s best comedic, and even dramatic, beats. Anna Fujhara, too, as one of a few construction workers who work ‘behind the scenes’ of the game was magnetic to watch. I must also mention Anna Louey, who ran on a treadmill for much of the show’s second half with terrifying stamina and physical commitment.
There is not a specific set designer credited for the Sims-style house constructed so perfectly within the confines of Theatre Works. With an immediately recognisable colour scheme and layout, it offers the perfect amount of nostalgia and spectacle. Credit goes to Head of production, Millie Levakis-Lucas and Sound Designer, Jack Burmeister and Lighting Designer Sidney Young, whose technical contributions work in perfect harmony. At its best, the set appears a well-oiled machine; with transitions, time jumps and even character deaths evoked with pitch-perfect timing and entertaining spectacle. At its worst, the sheer number of elements on stage – unaided by a similarly overwhelming number of characters – confuses and overwhelms one’s focus. Sightlines are so often divided between different aspects of this multi-media conglomerate that interesting character developments or plot-lines are either completely lost or cheapened.
There is not much by-way of plot in this show. It begins following these Sim characters as they are controlled by a group of high schoolers who watch on from a screen at the back of the stage. At this point, it is nostalgic and playful and a bit chaotic – they try to make their characters ‘WooHoo’, make a birthday cake and unsuccessfully avoid a Grim Reaper. There is time to revel in nostalgia here, with little need to follow a particular story arc. In the second half of the performance however, we jump forward to follow one such high schooler who has returned to their childhood home. She is listless, unemployed and clearly struggling to reconnect with a past relationship. These details are introduced through side-screens and quick scenes that make them difficult to assemble with any clarity. Simultaneously, the world of the Sims playing out on stage is devolving into increasingly absurd chaos – from a masturbatory earthquake, cheat codes and a funeral over breakfast cereal. On its own, these details are enigmatic (if a bit frustratingly incongruous), but if the point is that they are acting out the anxieties of this character who has returned home, then this is lost in the fray.
In fact, clarity is needed across the board to understand the rules of this world – both in the game and external to it. The reasons why the Grim Reaper figure (a camp but surprisingly one-note performance from Brandon Armstrong) is given a certain metatheatrical power that allows them to move unlike a Sim was particularly confounding. When they eventually have a phone call with a character planted in the audience, the emotionally fraught dialogue is confusing to the point frustrating. Boasting such magnetic spectacle, this is not a show that requires such an ad-hoc attempt at emotional acuity.
Still, MOTHERLOD_^E is a show with a charming magnetism, bolstered by a slew of effective performances. Flourishes of queer spectacle – a reveal of what exactly happens between two Sims under the sheets was particularly enigmatic – name the importance of this game for many-a queer adolescence. Should the show clarify its overarching plot – or, perhaps, abandon it all together in favour of a performance of unbridled play – I have no doubt it will continue to find and entrance its audience.
Image: Daniel Rabin