Old School Game Show is an Interactive Theatre Experience and Cabaret You Should See (4.5 stars)

Old School Game Show, Mike D’Angelo, host and executive producer, creator, Kaitlin Buckley, head writer and producer, Ginny Nightshade, executive producer, runs monthly at OBERON in Cambridge. See www.oldschoolgameshow.com and especially their videos at http://www.oldschoolgameshow.com/video-shorty-shorts.html.

Old School Game Show is just the kind of event that I created Events INSIDER to discover. As you may know on Twitter we are “Odd Boston Events” because we want to explore the unusual. We list sandcastle sculpture festivals, historical re-enactments, Elvis impression competitions, outdoor theatre, and a lot of weird stuff. This means we list a lot of events that are hard to describe, because they’re just so “out there”.

So Old School Game Show is so weird that it’s hard to describe, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. I even thought to myself, “A trivia game show? I hope it’s not boring.” I couldn’t have been more delighted to be wrong. Old School Game Show is a keeper, a great time that you should attend.

Start by imagining an old-time 1970s game show, where contestants get called up on stage to answer trivia questions. But that takes backstage to a series of stage performances, a variety show that is also linked into a single story arc for the night. The theme changes from show to show, and this time it was based on the 1980s high school movie genre, movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Although they play in other venues, Old School Game Show is now resident at OBERON, the second stage of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, and where I recently reviewed the interactive Donkey Show. The venue holds perhaps 150 people all seated, with a full bar. There is one intermission and I saw limited table service.

Imagine this. The game show begins but is immediately interrupted by a 1980s high school rich girl, wearing neon colors and hair sprayed “big hair” (Ginny Nightshade). With Valley Girl mannerisms, she gloats that daddy just bought the theatre for her as a graduation present, and she’s going to shut down Old School Game Show for good.

Every act then advances this dangerous plot. What will happen? Will the mean kids take over the school? A robot performs who can’t find a date to the prom. The high school sex ed teacher (Nick Chambers) comes out and sings parody songs based on 1980s movies. He’s the creator of Fake Song Friday, where he composes an original song about a retro found photo. His website is www.chamberscomedy.com

The ultimate goth (Megan Ward) sneers. The Cubic Zirconia Dancers, tease the audience and a stand-up comic (Kate Ghiloni) talks about women who too much want to be Martha Stewart or Gwyneth Paltrow. Guest singer Gene Dante performed. It’s hilarious, exceptionally creative, and really weird. But good weird. It works. You’ll find yourself drawn into rooting for the performers while following the themes of the genre, as a “high school movie” plays itself out on stage. At the end, the entire cast attends the prom and there’s a vote for Prom King and Queen.

In the middle of each act, trivia questions are hurled at contestants pulled from the audience, sometimes in a way that was not very time-efficient, but the organizers are working on a new 70-minute act that will be faster paced. Host Mike D’Angelo connects the disparate performances together and plays up what the contestants say with what is basically improv comedy. They have a live band, which I’d like to see be used more for things like stage entrances and exits, and even a “TV announcer” (Will Smalley). I’d like to have seen even more audience interaction beyond the contestant interaction. The questions aren’t esoteric, which to me makes it more fun. Anyone from the audience, including me, could have gotten a third or a half of the answers correct.

It’s surprisingly fun and effective, not on the artistic or production level of “Sleep No More”, but it’s in that genre. You get taken for a wild ride and some 25 people from the audience get to participate directly. You’ll laugh out loud both from the situational humor but also from surprise at the plot developments you won’t see coming.

It’s a huge challenge to parody a genre, which requires taking it down a notch and playing to stereotypes, while simultaneously creating characters that you love to hate or to root for, and a plot that is emotionally engaging to the audience. It would be easy for us to think “Who cares about these cardboard characters?” But Old School Game Show’s parody of its genre for that night was striking in how intelligent, original, and effective it was.

This fits nicely with my view of OBERON as the nightclub for theatrical, smart people but at the same time inclusive, not elitist or arrogant. Also like other OBERON shows I have seen, the sound was not shatteringly loud. You could comfortably talk with your friends a bit during the show, and there’s no need for ear plugs no matter where you sit.

Co-Executive Producer Ginny Nightshade kindly permitted an interview.

Events INSIDER: How do you describe the show?

Ginny Nightshade: We call it an alt-trivia variety show. It’s similar to The Price is Right, where the audience gets called up to play a game, but around those games we have sketch comedy, live music, dancers, and standup comedy. It’s a mixture of variety art with trivia, and everything is a 1970s analogue style.

Events INSIDER: What are the genres you work in?

Ginny Nightshade: Every show is a different theme. You happened to come to our 1980s high school movie episode, but in September we’re having a heavy metal episode. We’re doing multiple performances this month, with a residency at OBERON, Saturdays before the Donkey Show. Right now we’re doing monthly but in the Spring our goal is to up that and do it more.

Events INSIDER: Who are the main creative leads?

Ginny Nightshade: Michael is the main brain of the show, and Kaitlin Buckley is the head writer. We started working from the ground up. We have two teams of writers, with Mike, Kaitlin, and myself producing. I definitely contribute creatively as well. I do all the business work, casting, and more.

We have a strong cast and everyone is super dedicated. We’ve done a lot of weird things and everyone is always on board and willing to play with us.

Events INSIDER: I’ve been told that Old School Game Show is the one time that all the performers from the various acts at OBERON get together as a community. Have you found that to be true?

Ginny Nightshade: I am a burlesque dancer in Boston. That’s where I started before coming here. We have burlesque dancers, we have standup comics, we have improvisers, and our band is made up of all professional musicians who are in various bands throughout the city. That’s a really interesting description of how our cast is made up.

Events INSIDER: I like the emotional arc of the show. You place the audience into a stereotype 1980s high school movie, where every act moves forward an overarching plot of the show.

Ginny Nightshade: We work hard to create a plot that pulls people in. So you’re not just coming to a trivia night. You’re coming to a completely interactive theatre experience.

Events INSIDER: I have to confess that at first I assumed Old School Game Show would be like trivia night at a bar, which is slow-paced and the show rests heavily on the questions and answers, which may not be interesting.

Ginny Nightshade: It’s one of those things where you have to see it to believe it, how we put all the different components together, which is why we describe it as a variety show.

Events INSIDER: Thank you.

Although the show had some rough edges — calling up each contestant one at a time was a bad idea — there is great potential in this show and I’m glad to give it 4.5 stars.

Their past themes have included sci-fi, psychadelic 60’s, country & western, and videogames. Now catch Old School Game Show:

— John Hughes-A-Palooza, August 26 at Laugh Boston

— Their heavy metal theme, Sep 17 at OBERON, which is not just for bikers, I’ve been told. It features epic air guitar battles, lots of fun costumes, literal face melting, and Satan himself might make an appearance.

— Their Halloween theme, Oct 15 at OBERON,

— And who knows what they’ll come up with for Nov 19 at OBERON!

See www.oldschoolgameshow.com and www.americanrepertorytheater.org/oberon.