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Photograph by Tustin Ellison
ISSUES ORIENTED: Thomas Gorrebeeck (left) and Jose M. Martinez delve into some thorny questions in 'First Person Shooter.'

Video Veritas?

In 'First Person Shooter,' City Lights asks if violence in games can cause violence in life

By Jessica Fromm

THE SKI-MASK-WEARING killer stands center stage, bathed in red light. He strikes an intimidating figure, a trench coat on his back and a duffle bag full of ammunition at his feet. When he points his shotgun at the crowd and jerks to cock it, the whole audience flinches. But when he shouts his speech, an unhinged pubescent warble betrays his age. This is Billy Cahill, the perpetrator of the Columbine-like high school massacre at the heart of City Lights Theater Company's latest production, First Person Shooter. Drawing on the national debate sparked by the Virginia Tech and Columbine killings, First Person Shooter is superb contemporary theater. Instead of turning into a bitter blame game, the play is multifaceted and three-dimensional. While searching the souls of people caught in a ghastly tragedy, the production remains refreshingly unbogged-down. Tight, clever dialogue and pitch-perfect acting keep the audience riveted throughout the entire production.

Set in San Jose and rural Illinois, First Person Shooter focuses on the fallout of a school shooting. Kerry (Thomas Gorrebeeck) is the wunderkind CEO of upstart video game company Jet Pack Games, famous for its interactive virtual bloodbaths. The media unleashes a campaign of fear to dig up the cause of the massacre that leaves 14 people dead, including the school's only black student, Johnny Jamison. Kerry finds himself in the middle of the controversy when it is discovered that Cahill left him a pre-rampage message, thanking Kerry personally for the "practice" that Jet Pack's video-game carnage gave him. Accused of making a product that turns kids into racist killers, Kerry struggles with feelings of anger and guilt as he is slapped with lawsuits by the families of the victims. At the same time, on a farm in Illinois, the grief-stricken Jamisons (Jose M. Martinez and Rachel Bakker) find themselves thrust into the national spotlight. Hounded by lawyers, they are eventually convinced that Jet Pack is to blame for Johnny's death.

At the time of the Columbine shootings, Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb was working as a video-game journalist. Loeb drew on his own personal experiences to create the play, which debuted to rave reviews in San Francisco two years ago. Though First Person Shooter focuses on sober themes, its dark-humor-tinged writing is so witty and effortlessly delivered that audience members actually laughed out loud during scenes of palpable tension.

George Psarras is a master of verbal fireworks as Tommy, Jet Pack's spin-doctor. Dispensing one vulgarity-tinged zinger after another, Tommy, Kerry and fellow co-worker Tamar (Amanda Folena) have a dynamic casual rapport that never misses a beat. The use of lighting and video on the simple set is just right. In the end, the production takes many risks but manages to keep its characters and story real by never pointing fingers or settling for easy answers.

FIRST PERSON SHOOTER plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Feb. 22 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15–$30. (408.295.4200)

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