Those familiar with the two video games in Valve’s critically acclaimed Portal series know that their protagonist isn’t a big talker. Indeed, as the human test subject Chell struggles to break out of the Aperture Science research facility—a feat she finally accomplishes in the second of the first-person puzzle-platformer games—she never utters a single word.
That’s just one reason why Patrice Bowler says that Portal 2: The (Unauthorized) Musical, which is based on the games, is “totally different” than any other theatre production in which she has performed. Along with costar Erin Mudry, she’s playing the part of Chell in the dark comedy, which opens on Friday (January 30) at Vancouver’s Rio Theatre.
“I’m really excited to see what the reaction from the crowd is and how they’ll sympathize with this character who just doesn’t say anything and keeps getting trampled on,” Bowler, who also worked on the musical’s choreography, told the Georgia Straight. “She keeps trying to escape and then can’t. People keep ruining her life.”
Bowler joined castmates Fairlith Harvey, Jessica Mayhew, and Davin Reid for a sit-down interview in the Mount Pleasant studio of Geekenders, the theatrical troupe behind the musical. Founded in 2012, Geekenders is best known for its “nerdlesque”—that’s short for nerd burlesque—send-ups of the movies in the original Star Wars trilogy (A Nude Hope, The Empire Strips Back, and Reveal of the Jedi). Portal 2 is the troupe’s first all-ages show.
Harvey, who is Geekenders’ artistic director, wrote the musical’s script, prepared the choreography with Bowler, and plays the antagonist GLaDOS and the closely related character Caroline. She noted the show combines the “humour and quirkiness” of 2007’s Portal and 2011’s Portal 2—as well as material from Valve’s dystopian Half-Life games, which take place in the same science-fiction universe—with the participatory aspects of pantomime and parodies of songs from musicals such as Mary Poppins, The Book of Mormon, and Urinetown. (Alison Jenkins handled the musical direction, and James Dunlop wrote the lyrics.)
“It’s sort of a combination of everything wonderful,” Harvey said.
Portal 2 sees Chell wake up from cryogenic hibernation in Aperture Science’s deteriorating facility. With help from Wheatley (played by Graeme Thompson), a blue-eyed robot with a British accent, she embarks on a mission to escape. Unfortunately, along the way they unintentionally reactivate GLaDOS, the malevolent artificial intelligence that controls the facility. Eventually, they replace GLaDOS with Wheatley, but he becomes corrupted by his power. Ultimately, Chell must team up with former adversary GLaDOS in order to leave the facility.
Chell is equipped with a portal gun, which she uses to navigate Aperture Science’s dangerous test chambers. This device is fired at large flat surfaces to create two portals of different colours.
“They are connected,” explained Mayhew, who is a codirector and performs on-stage as part of the ensemble. “So if she makes a portal on the floor and a portal on the roof and jumps in the floor portal, she’ll come through the roof.”
While Geekenders is using officially licensed collectibles for the guns, the portals are being represented by wheeled set pieces that will be manually moved around on-stage. Two performers sharing the lead role means the audience will see Chell jump into one portal and out of another without a conspicuous delay.
“We obviously don’t have actual robots on the stage, so we’re getting actual people to, you know, have physicality and reenact these things,” said Reid, who is a codirector and plays Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson. “A lot of that staging and set design is within our menial budget, but we’ve really been able to make it very believable and really immersive.”
According to Mayhew, it was a challenge to preserve the “mystery” of the game in the show. She noted that the musical has a very character-driven story.
“Every single character in it is one that you can relate to in some way,” Mayhew said. “I think there’s a strong theme of finding yourself. It’s incredibly easy to relate to Chell because she wakes up in this place where she’s completely foreign, doesn’t know what she’s doing, and has to basically just trust in herself by the end to get through it.”
As for copyright issues, Harvey said that none have arisen. First of all, she pointed out, the musical is a parody and Geekenders is letting everyone know that Valve—a video-game company based in Bellevue, Washington—is not involved. Secondly, Harvey noted, Valve is supportive of fans making creative works inspired by its properties.
When the Straight interviewed Bowler, Harvey, Mayhew, and Reid—four out of the 14 cast members—they were preparing to log on to the popular website Reddit to do an AMA (ask me anything) Q & A. They were clearly excited about a photo of the musical’s poster having gone viral on the gaming subreddit a couple of days prior. In one week, the post racked up more than 1,200 comments and about 4,400 points (up votes minus down votes), and advance tickets for the first two dates sold out.
Harvey said that she came up with the idea for Portal 2 a year ago while Geekenders was rehearsing for The Wizard of Bras, a burlesque reimagining of the classic film The Wizard of Oz. She remarked that writing the script was “incredibly natural”, in part because the game is almost structured like a musical.
Later this year, Geekenders plans to present a gender-swapped theatrical version of The Princess Bride and a Las Vegas–style Guardians of the Galaxy burlesque show. For the troupe’s artistic director, putting on a musical represents the accomplishment of a goal she set for herself five years ago.
“This is the proudest achievement of my life, for sure,” Harvey said. “This is my dream totally coming true, so I’m really nervous and really, really happy.”
Geekenders presents Portal 2: The (Unauthorized) Musical at the Rio Theatre (1660 East Broadway) on January 30 and 31, February 1, and March 13 and 14, as well as at the Victoria Conference Centre (720 Douglas Street, Victoria) on February 28.