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'The Oregon Trail' inspires a play at The Annoyance Theatre

'Into Hell: The Oregon Trail' finds actor/writer Chip Bagnall spoofing a childhood classic

By Jason Heidemann

For RedEye

August 27, 2014

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If ever you've recalled vague memories of fording your covered wagon across a river, hunting for bison in the middle of brutal winter or watching your youngest drop dead at the hands of an indigenous American, chances are you were once a pioneer—at least in the virtual sense—making the lonely trek with your family from Independence, Mo. to Oregon's Willamette Valley.

"The Oregon Trail"—a video game etched into the brains of children raised in the '80s and '90s—was initially developed in 1971 as an instructional game to teach elementary school children about the hardships of 19th century pioneer life. It quickly grew into a beloved classic best remembered for the cruel deaths it frequently bestowed upon its players, most memorably from diseases such as cholera and dysentery (inflammation of the colon yielding some pretty nasty results).

For his first solo show at Lakeview's Annoyance Theatre, actor and writer Chip Bagnall decided a juicy parody was in order. Beginning Aug. 31, Bagnall hits the trail as self-reliant pioneer Jebediah "Jeb" Ashley, who makes the westward trek in search of fortune with his wife and nine daughters.The interactive show (directed by Rebecca Sohn) in part invites audience members along for the journey. No spoiler alert necessary: Some of us are dropping dead along the way.

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'Into Hell: The Oregon Trail'
Go: 8:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 31-Oct. 19 at The Annoyance Theatre (851 W. Belmont Ave.)
Tickets: $12, students $8. 773-697-9693; annoyancetheatre.com

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Why "The Oregon Trail" for your first Annoyance production?

I grew up playing it in the the late '80s, early '90s; I was in elementary school then. Thinking back on it, it's really twisted and sick to think that a bunch of elementary school students were playing a game in which pretty much everyone died—at least in my case. Everyone would just pass away by disease or something of that nature, so it was the inherent comedy in that. Also, I'm also a huge history buff. I just kind of wanted to meld the two together.

Did we actually learn anything from playing "The Oregon Trail"?

I learned that it is extremely fun to hunt, that's pretty much it. Ninety percent of the time I was hunting, which was the most fun part of the game. You would take down about 1,200 pounds of game and carry back like four. I think what we learned were the different diseases that were present at that time. Besides that, I don't anyone really absorbed anything else useful.

Was it challenging adapting a game that has so few visual cues or specific characters?

I actually think it was extremely liberating. Because [the game] was very low budget, I think that actually helped stage out the play itself in that the actual story is more of a character study of a guy who is going through absolute hell. Because there are so few cues, that gave me that much more liberty to play with it. If there were many more, it would make it more difficult to stage.

Death by dysentery is common in the game. Will that also happen in your stage version?

Maybe. There will be something rectal involved.

How is this an interactive show?

There's a few times where we will be crossing rivers and creeks and I'm asking the audience—or in the case of the play, my fellow pioneers—what we should do. This is actually the part of the play that's fun and open to interpretation and I can improvise a little bit. Sometimes I'll open up a debate among different audience members as to what we should do.

Describe Jeb. Is he a hearty pioneer?

The character I wanted to create—specifically because it's about someone being tested—was kind of like Job in the Bible, consistently being shat upon over and over again. This takes place in 1851, a time period when God was very personal to everyone and, for him, he's your classic mid-19th century, God-fearing Christian. [He's an] extremely optimistic man and kind of places all his faith in that, so he's hearty, optimistic to a fault. He's got a temper and some hubris too.

If the show is a hit, will you adapt other video games to the stage? Is Pong next?

Of course. That will be the first thing on my list.

Jason Heidemann is a RedEye special contributor. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyechicago