Catalyst’s ‘ArcadeFire’ strikes Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

Readers might recall that I reviewed the Catalyst Repertory musical “ArcadeFire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell” when it was part of the IndyFringe festival last August. Now a full two-act show has returned to the stage, produced in collaboration with Carmel Theatre Company, playing at the Irvington Lodge in Indy’s Eastside.

For those new to this, the title is not a reference to a band, but to actual “arcades” that used to take our lives one quarter at a time back in the 1980s. Playwright and Catalyst founder Casey Ross recently became interested in the story of Mitchell, who was a master of various video games, most notably Donkey Kong (the original low-res game with “Jumpman” [later named Mario] making his way up ramps and ladders while a giant ape throws barrels down at him, in a quest to rescue the damsel that Kong kidnapped). Mitchell had the official all-time high score and was known as “King of Kong” until a documentary by that name came out not long ago, accusing him of cheating. The internet pounced, as it likes to do, and records were officially stripped.

Ross wrote a musical play, with songs by Christopher McNeely and D. Bane, portraying Mitchell as an egotistical, yet basically decent guy who seeks to restore his reputation by challenging his competitors – especially DK-obsessed middle-school teacher Steve Wiebe – to a “Kong Off” to determine the true King. But one has to be careful when writing about actual people, so Ross made contact with Mitchell (this is even referenced briefly in the play) to beg him not to sue or block her from producing the show. On the contrary, Mitchell jumped in as a producer, making personal appearances and providing his signature hot sauce (which is delicious, by the way) with show labels at the Fringe performances.

Life has imitated the art imitating life. Mitchell and Ross work together to aid his “redemption” through this musical, as well as events at video game establishments featuring past star arcade players. Thus, when Billy steps up to a console in Indianapolis that he had never seen before and racks up a literal million points, it’s harder to believe the haters who say he cheated. While performances of “ArcadeFire!” are playing in the upper chambers of the Irvington Lodge, recently opened video venue Level Up Lounge hosts gaming on the first floor. Other sponsors include One Up Arcade Bar in Broad Ripple, Video Game Palooza in Westfield, Comics Cubed of Kokomo, and Team Scorechasers.

In all, this is an awesome spectacle, especially for Gen-X geeks like myself who spent a fair amount of time on arcade joysticks back in the day. But when we get to the show itself, the concept is much better than the execution. Even accounting for only seeing a very rough dress rehearsal, it appears the added material magnifies the musical’s flaws as well as its assets.

Fortunately, the main cast do make this somewhat work. Luke McConnell returns as a dead ringer for Mitchell (though Billy admits Luke is the better singer), calmly portraying all the unflagging confidence of a man who wears an American flag tie like a superhero’s shield. Anthony Nathan is at his perfectly-campy best reprising Mitchell’s “nemesis” Wiebe – his scenes are by far the most fun to watch. Kayla Lee also returns as longsuffering wife Nicole Wiebe (she also plays “Dave,” the podcaster that airs Mitchell’s “Kong Off” challenge); she convincingly gives the “I don’t know why, but I love him” look, several times. New to the cast are Andy Sturm ably taking the role of Brian “Killscreen” Kuh, Mitchell’s coach and “professional number two;” and Craig Kemp solidly embodies arcade manager and competition judge Walter Day.

A more functional backstage screen is up this time – and yes, all the video game consoles you see are genuine. Hopefully the show’s flow will be tightened up with each performance, as well as the dance steps.

Script-wise, Ross has written much better. For instance, we get little insight into why all the red, white and blue, aside from a reference to a Canadian player dissing Mitchell – also, I theorize using USA as your three-letter high-score ID (initials were all those machines’ memory could handle back then) looks a lot better than BM. But with an opportunity for more detailed background in a full-length play, we get precious little more than we had in the 45-minute Fringe edition. Fortunately, Ross’s skills at crafting conversation make what is revealed sound natural.

This is a fun show, especially if you keep your expectations low and go with the cheesiness of it, as well as its stranger-than-fiction real-world aspects. And pick up some sauce!

One weekend of performances remain, Feb. 15-17, at the Irvington Lodge, 5515 East Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and ticket link on Catalyst’s Facebook page (fb.com/CatalystRepertory).

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IndyFringe: ‘Arcade Fire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

(*With bonus hot sauce review!)

To be clear, this is not about Arcade Fire, the band, but about redemption, and a proud man who doesn’t want to be known just for awesome hot sauce (see below) but also for being the King of Kong, able to best any game in the arcade.

Quirky playwright and Fringe regular Casey Ross got the idea not long ago to take the story of Billy Mitchell, whose record high score on Donkey Kong was unquestioned until a popular documentary alleged that he somehow cheated, and make it into a musical. This brought out Billy himself — not to stop her, but to give his hearty trademark thumbs-up. If you come to the show today (Sunday, Aug. 19), he will be there in the audience and available for your admiration after.

The musical, written by Ross with clever rousing songs by Christopher McNeely, is based on true events and people, including the frustrated middle-school teacher who challenged Mitchell’s record. Our Billy is selling his sauce at his pizza joint in Florida, when he discovers that the Internet is dissing him. He fights fire with fire by going on a podcast and challenging his detractors to a Kong-Off. Who will smash through the barrels and climb to the top, and who will fall?

A cast of fine local actors bring the story to life, including Luke McConnell as Mitchell (an excellent likeness), Anthony Nathan as rival Steve Wiebe, Jim Banta as Donkey Kong’s “Number Two” Brian Kuh, Ryan Powell as arcade referee Walter Day, and Kayla Lee as Steve’s lonsuffering wife Nicole. As to their singing and dancing — well, did I mention they are fine actors? Still the moves they bust just add to the fun as we all take so seriously what is literally a two-bit hobby (at least before games cost more than a quarter to play).

Full disclosure: We’re very good friends with Ross, but when you experience “ArcadeFire!” presented by her Catalyst Repertory at the Firehouse union hall, third floor, you’ll want to be her pals, too.

*Among the Billy Mitchell swag is his signature hot sauce (which he will sign if you ask). Wendy and I tried it on some roast beef, and it is excellent, with rich flavors reminiscent of Cholula, but with a little more kick. It has sweet with the heat, so is fine for moderate spice users — though it might disappoint those who want something that sets their heads on fire (what’s up with you people?!). Later at the beer tent I saw some Fringers shaking a little into their beer, and they said it was good that way. To each their own.