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A new romantic comedy puts live-action role-playing center stage
There are adults who meet for poker; some play chess; others host book clubs. But the protagonists of Liba Vaynberg's new romantic comedy Round Table at 59E59 Theaters indulge in LARPing. That's an acronym for live-action role-playing, with participants masquerading as knights, fairies, elves, warlocks, witches and other fantastical characters in an imaginary kingdom.
A real-world expansion of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, LARPing started in the '70s. To the uninitiated, it may look like a bunch of grown-ups engaging in Renaissance Faire cosplay, sporting medieval costumes and wielding plastic swords, but that's only scratching the surface. LARPing isn't just an eccentric hobby; many players believe it has social and emotional benefits that have changed their lives.
Vaynberg and director Geordie Broadwater's quest with Round Table is to vanquish misconceptions about LARP culture. As Vanyberg explains, they want to "remove the judgments inherent in LARPing by bringing it to the theatre, where it can live in a context that most people never get to experience." Indeed, LARPing checks off most of the same boxes as theatre -- players wear costumes, wield prop weapons and stay in character -- except traditionally, there's no audience.
In addition to penning Round Table, Vaynberg plays Laura, a ghostwriter of romance novels who's introduced to LARPing by Zach (Craig Wesley Divino), a medieval scholar and writer for a fantasy TV series. They've recently started dating and it's going well, but Zach knows something Laura doesn't: he has cancer. Their bittersweet romance is interwoven with a retelling of the King Arthur legend, which begins to bleed into their courtship.
"LARPing is this play's metonym for storytelling," says Vaynberg. "We tell stories precisely because we want to negotiate our relationship with fate."
Broadwater and Vaynberg admit they're not hardcore LARPers, but they did their homework while developing Round Table, including interviewing people involved in the scene. Vaynberg's Laura, initially a LARP skeptic, serves as the audience's window into the world. "A lot of people think it's really goddamn weird!" admits Vaynberg, but she counters that perception by presenting LARPing as a potent tool of empowerment, feminist even.
"Fantasy, sci-fi, nerdy things are not about escaping; rather they're a celebration of ideas and imagination," says Broadwater. As such, Zach's LARPing is treated with affectionate humor, not dismissive snark, and the King Arthur scenes are played seriously, not as campy comedy, even though they do elicit laughs.
Round Table's fight sequences really thrill because it's staged in 59E59 Theaters' most intimate space. That's by design. "In college, I saw a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a very small basement room," Broadwater recalls. "It had so much violence and so much blood right near the audience, and I'll always remember it. There's something incredible about having our sword fighting right up in the audience's faces. We wanted it to be fast, dangerous and exciting, but also since it is quite a small space, we made sure it was safe."
Round Table isn't the first production to bring fantasy role-playing to the stage. Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters and Crystal Skillman's Geek touched on it (fun fact: Nguyen was Vaynberg's stage combat instructor while she was earning her MFA in Acting at Columbia University). And earlier this year, Sinking Ship Creations mounted The Mortality Machine, an interactive LARP mystery in which audience members were called on to play specific characters.
But Round Table goes further by making a compelling case for how LARPing can be just as moving and cathartic as theatre. As Broadwater says, "The validity of the emotions in the play are the same as the validity of the LARPers you might see in the park."
Caroline Cao is a writer, comic writer, playwright and screenwriter. When she's not working on a script or fanfiction, she's experimenting with pasta. Follow her at @Maximinalist. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Liba Vaynberg and Craig Wesley Divino in Round Table. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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