The Man, the Myth, the Tie
Just being “Billy Mitchell” is a job.
It’s the tie.
Those star-spangled monstrosities that are part of his persona’s costume are also the on-and-off switch for Billy the Video Game Player of the Century versus Billy the normal if nerdy 53-year-old husband, father, and restaurant owner. At Thursday night’s final dress rehearsal of Arcadefire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell, I think the tie loosened up some, but I don’t think it ever really left that phantom-noose-like position around his neck. After the show, a few people retired to Tappers Arcade Bar. Even though my companion and I arrived at least 30 minutes before Billy and set up camp next to the Donkey Kong machine, the 6-and-a-half-foot Billy managed to elude me and bee-lined to the game cabinet.
While not on par with Just Jared celebs, Billy still has a, granted small, retinue to keep track of things like Twitch feeds and costuming, not to mention appearances and such. His right-hand man Neil Hernandez dresses up as Mario. It’s adorable. And not long after Billy got going on the pixelated apeman at Tappers, there was Neil with the camera to capture each of Billy’s moves. I think I got in the way of that. Sorry not sorry. As I said at the time, it’s a game. It seems to me that it’s not a lot of fun anymore.
But that’s the job of being Billy Mitchell, Video Game Player of the Century.
Billy is affable regardless of his reputation for being kind of an asshole. The first time I met him was at the Sunday afternoon 2018 IndyFringe Festival weekend premiere of Casey Ross’s Arcadefire! At the time, I didn’t know what a Billy Mitchell was. All I knew was that the show was written by Casey, which put it on my to-see list, and that it was a musical about video games. As I moved forward in the queue to enter the theater, I saw a giant man with long dark hair wearing a white suit and an American flag tie who was standing at the entrance greeting the audience. I didn’t think too much of this anomaly. It was the Fringe, after all. Crazy shit happens. When it was my turn to enter, Billy shook my hand and he and his fellow greeter (Walter Day) said some flattering things to me, and then I was on my way. As I was leaving, Billy took my hand again and paid me another compliment. And that was that.
So I thought.
And I had STILL not put two and two together because I am, occasionally, an idiot.
As I sat in the Firefighters Union Hall lobby waiting for my next show, I Googled Billy Mitchell to verify if this was a real person. And that’s when I discovered that the flirtatious snowdrift was, in fact, the real Billy Mitchell. And here he came again, even taller now that I was seated. (I’m just shy of 5-foot-2.) My first response: “Are you really Billy Mitchell?” So he pulled out his driver’s license to verify that yes, he was in fact the real Billy Mitchell. We chatted for a few minutes, a conversation in which he admitted to being an unapologetic flirt, and later he came back over to give me a few of the trading cards that Day had designed for the event that was to take place later that night at Tappers.
All this struck me as funny. So I had to text one of my best friends who happens to have enough knowledge about 1980s pop culture that he could rival the Recordkeeper in Ready Player One. (This happens to be the same person who accompanied me to the show Thursday, my fellow journalist and best friend of 20-odd years, Paul Pogue.)
Me: Do you know who Billy Mitchell of Donkey Kong fame is? I think he was [censored].
Paul: I think you broke my husband.
Yeah, that was from his wife, another best friend of mine, Katrina, responding because Paul was on the floor laughing, with tears running down his face.
Billy is more than happy, eager even to talk to you — he is very fan-centric — so long as you focus on positivity … and you aren’t a journalist. Billy is notorious for his hatred of journalists because he doesn’t think there are any real ones left. Which is funny since 1) I am a journalist, and 2) he did an interview with these guys this week. Sure, they aren’t Variety, but still. However, on Thursday, Billy and I kept up running conversations before the show and afterward at Tappers, before everyone was booted for the night. He was fun to talk to, as was Neil and some of Billy’s other friends who had come out in support of the show. I got some interesting insights, and I had fun. I should have been recording.
I think Billy’s reticence towards journalists stems from his perfectionism. It’s the old mantra, if you’re going to do something, do it right. Go big or go home. I think that attitude is what led him to competitive video game playing in the first place. Who knew that he’d still be chasing those ghosts —both pixelated and metaphorical — 30-odd years later?
This isn’t the first show that is based on Billy. When Casey began working on the it, there were four others in existence, including a musical, Fistful of Quarters, based on the documentary of the same name. This is also the docu-drama that her now-boyfriend attempted to stump her with, and it was her initial inspiration for the show. She and her boyfriend are both documentary buffs, and he was trying to find one she hadn’t seen. Well, she had seen it, but that was OK. She was looking for material to craft a new show for the 2018 Fringe, and it fit. After that, she became “Billy’s Indiana stalker.”
Then again, this isn’t Billy’s first brush with actors slash directors since he was in movies such as King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade. Here, Casey has taken the basic premise of events surrounding the accusations that Billy cheated to achieve his record-breaking scores and turned it into a campy musical. Does Billy see himself up there on stage? No, he says. Not the comedy.
But the comedy is what the audience comes for — if you aren’t just coming to see Billy himself (back for the show’s second premiere) during opening weekend and partaking in the video game extravaganzas that are planned.
This production is an extended version of the short Fringe Festival offering. It’s the 1980s — the heyday for cabinet video games. Billy Mitchell (Luke McConnell, original) is the King of Kong, holding the world record for the highest score in Donkey Kong. His self-described “nemesis,” Steve Wiebe (Anthony Nathan, original), is obsessed with beating Billy. Fast forward a few decades. Steve remains obsessed, and his long-suffering wife (Kayla Lee, original) is on the edge. Brian (Andy Sturm), who always came in second to Billy’s scores, informs him that he is being accused of cheating and stripped of his titles. To redeem his gaming reputation, Billy holds a Kong Off and brings in his old gaming referee, Walter (Craig Kemp). Devilry is planned, loyalties are weighed, and priorities are amended.
Unfortunately, the new version feels less cohesive than the original even with expanded storylines and exposition. I love the glimpses we get of Billy’s first meeting with Brian and his early interactions with Walter, but these relationships aren’t further explored. Nor is his transition from pinball to cabinet gaming or the source of his determination. The relationship between Billy and Brian becomes nebulous.
The dynamic I love best is the Wiebes. They have the choicest dialogue, and Nathan is such a fruitcake in the face of Lee’s deadpan delivery.
Ultimately, this show is neither fish nor fowl. The music numbers to acting ratio barely makes it a musical, and so much camp in the face of a very serious McConnell makes us wonder why Nathan is so seriously disturbed, like when he gets his Smeagol on with a quarter. Add to that an intense, emotionally sincere monologue from Sturm in the second half, and the over-the-top elements lose their charm.
What musical numbers are left don’t hold any power. Sadly, a few people in the cast can’t sing, and the choreography still needs a lot of work, as do some scenes, both from a director’s and a writer’s point of view. For example, the scene in Billy’s restaurant feels almost superfluous, and what is the purpose of the dance “Do the Donkey Kong”? And there really, really needs to be a screen for the projections.
Am I saying don’t see the show? No. I am critiquing a work in progress. Plus, there are so many exciting elements to this event. Not only are you witnessing the evolution of a show, but you can also meet the man it is based on. Plus, the event’s venue is the badass 666 historic Irvington Lodge, and the show’s producers have partnered with the new Level Up Gaming Lounge on the first floor for events. The Level Up is a story in itself. It’s a neat little business inside an under-used Irvington building, and it deserves our support after the crazy bullying they received right before opening.
And, at the show, there’s HOT SAUCE.
- Through Feb. 17, Fridays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
- $20. This ticket allows you into ONLY the production Arcadefire! This ticket does not include access to extra events and meet & greets.
- Tickets for Play-Play POPcade Passes are $35. These weekend passes allow you full access to the Level Up Gaming Lounge events and after-parties, as well as your entry for any desired tournaments and meet & greets. Team Scorechasers creator Sid Seattle will moderate fast-paced tournaments, while legendary gamers play and stream … for a good cause!
- Historic Irvington Lodge
- Tickets here