No Save Points (Theatre) Review: Losing Control

Outside the March’s No Save Points – the “live-action video game” – is not what you think it is.

Yes, it’s a highly entertaining one-man show which riffs on notions of control and the possibilities of entering a video game world. Yes, it’s a “gamer’s play”, quite literally handing the audience control over its creator-star Sébastien Heins, whose actions are dictated by button presses on a modified Game Boy. (No, it’s not as creepy as it sounds.) And yes, it does an admirable job of recreating the feel and the aesthetic of video games with its wonderfully designed set, which pairs screen projections with real-world objects for Heins to interact with.

No Save Points (Theatre) Review: Losing Control

However – and this is where the show’s altogether necessary content warning comes into play – the actual story which No Save Points has to tell is a tough one, dealing primarily with the topic of serious illness. A staged memoir of sorts, Heins leverages the format – and his wonderful, tension-puncturing sense of humour – to bring audiences along with him as he (and his family) confront the looming threat of a terrible illness. The specifics are worth avoiding here (though if you’re curious, you can easily track down these real-life “spoilers” in the promotional materials), but audiences should be prepared for a heart-rending journey.

If nothing else, the charismatic central performance of creator-star Heins is reason to attend No Save Points. It is incredibly difficult to carry a two-plus hour show on your own – let alone one trading in such difficult, uncomfortable topics – and the fact that he pulls it off with style and humour to spare is nothing short of miraculous. There are a thousand ways NSP could have been cheesy or manipulative – that he (largely) sidesteps these pitfalls is a testament not only to his skills as a writer, but to his ability to engage with audiences as a performer. I can think of no higher compliment than that No Save Points has the feel of a fringe show gone mainstream.

When the play opens, Heins is alone on stage, Game Boy in hand, reflecting on a childhood when trips to Zellers(!) to pick up new games with his mother – away from dad’s disapproving eyes – remain a cherished memory. As Heins ages, his love for video games remains unabated, even as he realizes that gaming has always been something of a therapeutic crutch, something to fall back on when the real world is too tough to face. That dynamic becomes especially pronounced in the wake of a revelation – precipitated by a trip to his mother’s home country of Jamaica – which profoundly changes the lives of his mother, himself, and the extended Heins family.

No Save Points (Theatre) Review: Losing Control

To tell that story, Heins turns to the media he knows best: gaming and theatre. Structuring the show around four “games” – each one a mocked-up Game Boy cartridge – he asks the audience for help as he enters each game world and takes on its challenges. The games are, of course, unveiled metaphors for his family’s experiences, taking him – and the audience – through a prince’s journey, a comic book-style battle with a supervillain tellingly named “The Puppeteer”, and beyond. For each sequence, Heins steps behind a translucent screen and acts out the action based on inputs from the modified Game Boy controller, passed between audience members.

The controller works with what we are (rather amusingly) told are very mild haptic inputs taped to the performer’s body: press left on the controller, and Heins gets a buzz on the side of his body, telling him to walk left. Press the “A” button, and he’ll feel it in his legs when he’s being instructed to jump. It’s a brilliant, intuitive spin on audience interactivity, and makes for great, unscripted fun when someone presses the wrong button at the wrong time and Heins’s “on-screen” character is forced to respond.

No Save Points (Theatre) Review: Losing Control

No Save Points is not without its weaknesses.

Heins’s painfully earnest approach is mostly to the good (and in service of a story which all but requires it), but can occasionally indulge in the maudlin. And while his ability to inhabit dozens of characters is impressive, he’s actually at his worst when playing the central character, his childhood self. For whatever reason, Heins reverts to the laziest, most unrealistic caricature of a child – even four-year-olds don’t sound like this – which makes some would-be emotional moments ring false (and, if we’re being honest here, annoying). NSP could also use some editing: while the runtime is, to an extent, dependent on how well the audience navigates its interactive challenges, the truth is that this is a ninety-minute story stretched out to over two hours.

On the other hand, No Save Points is so unique, so unlike anything else, it can be forgiven for its rougher edges. I especially love the way that, over time, the choice of format begins to make sense, demonstrating that it’s not just a fun gimmick to draw in audiences. Put another way, the interactivity of NSP proves essential to the story Heins has to tell, with one late-play moment in particular – in which the very nature of “control” is thrown into question – eliciting an emotional response I was not at all prepared for.

For a long time, Outside the March theatre company has been producing what might be called “stealth message” shows. Specializing in immersive, interactive theatre (albeit at one-thousandth of the scale of immersion legends Punchdrunk Entertainment), each of OtM’s shows also tackles a socially conscious theme, whether it’s queer identity, living with illness, or confronting prejudice. I think it’s wonderful that OtM does this; that it can lure in audiences with fun, interactive experiences, only to have them come away with a lesson or thought-provoking question to consider afterwards.

While you may come to No Save Points for the chance to make a human video game character move around at your command, it’s likely that, at the end of the show, it is you who will have been moved.

With its recent extension (congrats!), No Save Points runs now until July 2nd at the Lighthouse ArtSpace (One Yonge Street). Tickets available here.