On opening night of “Thrift Store Junkie,” the UA Department of Theatre made clever use of technology, presenting live theater and showcasing a student’s work, while keeping performers and audience members safely at home.
“Thrift Store Junkie,” a new play by MFA playwriting student Brendan Beseth, is the first production of the UADT’s 2020-21 season, and the department’s first ever to be presented completely remotely. In order to protect students, performers, crew members and the audience, UADT leadership decided this summer to perform all productions for the rest of 2020 via Zoom.
Beseth’s two-person play tells the funny, convoluted and poignant story of a lonely thrift store bookhound, Henry, who meets a mysterious foreign woman, Marge, while perusing the racks. Marge convinces Henry to take part in a comical, bizarre con, which sends his life into a spiral of conflict, self discovery and even supernatural encounters.
“Thrift Store Junkie” is generally well-written, with a very original, delightfully absurd storyline and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. The plot was at times a bit hard to follow, but I think that can mostly be attributed to the medium with which the play was delivered. It is somewhat difficult to interpret body language, line delivery and action when the actors are shown in boxes on a screen while seated in their own homes. If they were on stage with lights, props and set pieces, playing off of one another, things would likely be clearer.
Despite the limitations on their performances, the actors did a fantastic job with what they had. The play, which was originally to be performed at the cancelled ArkType New Play Festival in April, was set to feature two student actors, who unfortunately graduated before the play could be staged. While this was certainly a loss, their replacements, Trike Theatre Head of Academy Chris Tennison and UADT lecturer Betsy Jilka, were excellent choices.
Tennison gave an energetic, convincing and laugh-out-loud funny performance as Henry, and Jilka portrayed the mysterious, complicated femme-fatale-esque Marge perfectly. The actors also had the added challenge of portraying several minor characters in addition to the two leads, and they met it with ease. Their transitions between characters with different affects, voices and personalities were exceptionally smooth and easy to follow, aided only by an assortment of different hats and wigs.
My one complaint with the acting had to do with the accents that the performers employed for their characters. Since Marge was portrayed as a more ambiguous, “generic-Eastern-European” type, I think Jilka mostly got away with her nonspecific accent. However, Tennison’s secondary character, Petrovovich, was clearly supposed to be Russian, but his accent often fluctuated between something close to Russian and something reminiscent of Count Dracula. As someone who grew up with a Russian-American family and in the Russian Orthodox community, I can attest that it was not exactly accurate.
While the acting was solid, what impressed me most about Thursday night’s performance was the overall smoothness of the show’s delivery via Zoom. The actors, although in different locations, were able to make clever use of their adjoining onscreen boxes by using a consistent neutral background and even “passing” items between their sides of the screen.
Aside from the occasional minor lag or cutout in audio, there were no technology issues at all, and connection and continuity were never lost. There were even transitions, which would have been marked by the lights going down in the theater, that were mimicked by darkening the screen between scenes. Especially given that this was the first remote show performed by the UADT, I was incredibly impressed. I commend Tyler Micheel, who was responsible for the Zoom call and its sound engineering, for his excellent work.
Overall, “Thrift Store Junkie” is a fun, endearing 90 minutes of theater, and its ease of at-home accessibility makes it especially worth the watch. I recommend this remote, world-premiere show to anyone who wants to have even a small part in making UA theater history.
“Thrift Store Junkie” runs through Saturday night, with daily Zoom performances at 7:30 p.m., and 7 p.m. pre-show discussions with Beseth and director Steven Marzolf. Admission is free, but audience members must reserve spots through the UA ticketing website.