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Friendship, Love, and Dungeons & Dragons Tell the Tale in NKU’s “Initiative”

Northern Kentucky YES Festival – “Initiative” – attended opening night, Thursday, April 4– Kevin Reynolds

Photo: Trevor Browning, Brandon Critchfield, Piper Bates, and Kali Marsh– credit The Northerner/Josh Kelly

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “Initiative”: NKU Theatre

There’s the family you’re born into and the family you choose. Benton, Kentucky native and Atlanta-based playwright and actor Jacob York shows the power of the latter in times of crisis in his newest play, “Initiative,” the second of three productions in the 19thBiennial YES Festival, hosted by Northern Kentucky University

Trevor Browning, Brandon Critchfield, Piper Bates, and Kali Marsh in “Initiative”

A group of friends who spend hours playing the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons are challenged to face, together, the tragic diagnosis of their friend Dave. For these 20-something’s, it’s their first confrontation of mortality outside the fantasy world they create together when they play. 

A personal note: I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons and only know a bit about it from several episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” However, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that York and his characters are using the structure of Dungeons & Dragons to allow Dave the chance to make memories he will, sadly, not live to experience. There is some explanation of terminology, but at times, you just have to (excuse the game reference) roll with it.

The cast all brought different strengths to the stage, often switching from their present-day characters to others playing out in Dave’s “make memories” fantasies. Under Mike King’s direction, the action keeps moving through 10 scenes (or sessions, as they are called) in two acts. 

Dave (Brandon Critchfield) and Meg (Piper Bates) are boyfriend and girlfriend, facing Dave’s diagnosis and accompanying fear, neurosis, anger, and ultimate acceptance. The strongest first act session was the third when Dave is facing the tribulations of treatments and struggling with the idea of “Is it all worth it?” while Meg struggles to understand that kind of thinking and determine where she fits in.

Dave has three D&D-playing friends who all preceded Meg in his life; his best friend, Tyrone (James Dawson) has the most trouble accepting Dave’s inevitable fate. Dawson did well with a part that, truthfully, felt underwritten. The hazard of “the best friend role” rises up here – he’s not given as much to work with as he serves as the game master throughout.

Kali Marsh is the quirky, occasionally emotional, but comfortable being the only girl in the game Sky. She will go off into her own world during the game, but the guys are accustomed to that and their mutual affection for their friend is palpable.

The standout performance comes from Trevor Browning as Benny. It’s not that Benny is that unique or a fully-realized character on the page, but Browning’s dynamic and engaging presence simply fills the stage. Benny is the energetic, funny friend who doesn’t seem to have particular luck at D&D, but you sense he’s happy that he’s found his tribe. And his portrayal of an English professor in Dave’s fantasy to earn his master’s degree was pure gold.

Two other actors fill a variety of roles from stage managers to students to tourists on a beach. Reagan Ruth and Timothy Belton portray NPC #1 and NPC #2 and, in truth, I had to look that up to discover it means Non-Player Character. Even so, they inject character into each appearance. 

The set from Cat Johnson is your basic living room but it’s functional for the game playing and the times when it must become a classroom or graduation stage or even a church bathroom. 

And I feel confident in saying that in all the years I’ve attended plays and musicals, a production credit for a D&D Advisor is a first. Charlie Roetting, a lecturer at NKU and member of OTRImprov, lent his role-playing expertise to the production. I trust they got it right.

“Initiative” is heartfelt and, at times, emotional. There are moments that feel a bit too much like a Hallmark Channel movie, but the intrinsic message is real and the characters are challenged by a reality that will impact their lives forever. “Initiative” runs through April 14 as part of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit https://www.NKU.edu/academics/sota/events/theatre.html.