It's a common concept of those video games of yore: A protagonist, often male, sets forth on a journey to save the universe or a damsel in distress by conquering some evil foe.
In each successive level, the protagonist defeats minions, collects items and solves puzzles before defeating the more powerful "level boss" to advance in the game. Though game styles have morphed over the years, some of the most durable brands of video gamedom — the Mario Bros., Zelda and Sonic franchises, for instance – at least began with this setup.
In "Level 4," local playwright Dante Piro plays off this with "Karma Quest," an aptly named fictitious video game where the Hero (Adam Turck) must defeat the Darth Vader-like Gauntlet (Levi Meerovitch) by collecting the shards of a powerful crystal.
All this is exposition to get us to the Light Lord (Chris Klinger), the fourth-level boss who suddenly and hilariously becomes aware of his own existence within the video game. Every time someone plays his level, the Light Lord must watch as the Hero decimates his friends and colleagues before he has the Sisyphean task of fighting the game's protagonist himself.
As the Light Lord, Klinger skillfully plays the exasperated everyman thrown into a crazy situation. While frequently funny, Klinger goes well beyond playing the role for laughs. His reactions to the mundane — such as a takeout place getting his order wrong, or slowly realizing that he's a character in a game — feel natural. Between this and his performance in last month's "Dance Nation," Klinger is quickly becoming a name to know in town.
Similarly, Turck deftly balances the humor and heart of his character. With wraparound shades and pseudo-military garb, he looks something like Tom Cruise in one of the "Mission: Impossible" films. Under Chelsea Burke's direction and Emily Turner's fight choreography, he gets some of the show's funnier physical comedy bits, leaping around and swinging his sword like an early Link. In addition to having the proper biceps to play the hero, Turck gets to show off some of the puppetry skills he mastered for last year's "Hand to God."
Playing both the meek Mertens and the evil overlord Gauntlet, Meerovitch reveals his range, and Adam Valentine is hilarious as Strobe, the Light Lord's dimwitted miniboss who must first do battle with the Hero. Playing a variety of roles — including the irritating level boss Tammy and the Heroine, a female version of the Hero — Breezy Potter proves herself a gifted comedic actress.
Technically, the show's elements conspire to give the feel of an old console game, including Dasia Gregg's teal circuit-board-themed set design, Michael Jarrett's pulsing lights and Joey Luck's superb sound design, which includes original mock-video game music. Gregg's projections have the look of an NES game, but on opening night the projection screen appeared to fall down in the second act. Ruth Hedberg's costume designs work in most instances, but the button-down shirt and khakis of the Light Lord feel out of place.
Like many a new work, "Level 4" could use a trimming — personally, I'd advise cutting the last three scenes entirely — but the script is 90% there, and has some truly inspired moments, such as when the game overheats and turns into a bad acid trip of glitches.
An inventive and funny show that delivers glancing blows at existentialism and the human condition, "Level 4" is one of the more original works to hit Richmond in recent years. Between this and Firehouse's recent staging of his one-man show "The Verge," Dante Piro appears a promising young playwright to keep an eye on.
TheatreLab's "Level 4," plays through Aug. 31 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabrva.org or call 506-3533.