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Does video kill the theater star?

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There is an entire generation raised more on Star Wars than “Sesame Street,” that can quote a John Hughes movie quicker than a John Steinbeck novel, and that can sing every word of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” but can’t remember the eight simple lines of “God Bless America.” For this media savvy, MTV-edited generation, Marc Morales wrote his off-off-Broadway production, Galaxy Video.

This contemporary comedy is not and doesn’t intend to be crucial theater. The entire story takes place in a video store staffed by quirky slackers and frequented by even quirkier customers, all of whom are experiencing their own Meg Ryan moments and making comparisons to the waves in the last scene of Point Break. The play is supposed to be fun and irreverent, and it contains enough pop-culture punchlines to make Dennis Miller blush—and probably feel like an old fogey. The characters quote Luke Skywalker in pivotal scenes, two moments of silence are held mid-play for River Phoenix, and the many transitions from brief scene to brief scene are filled with a soundtrack ranging from an inspired Dirk Diggler studio recording (if you don’t get the reference, let that be a sign) to Run-DMC. Even the simplistic message of Galaxy Video is aimed at a younger generation, a cool-kid nod to staying true to your passion during those confusing and transitional 20-something years.

For all of these reasons, it should be considered a good sign that the University of Montana Department of Drama and Dance allowed Brad Poer, a graduate student, to direct this production on campus. Contemporary drama is creeping its way into the Masquer and Montana Theatres (The Shape of Things comes to mind), but for comedy UM has relied more on oldies-but-goodies (last season’s Present Laughter, for example). These classics are safe and necessary (the larger casts allow more students to perform), but safe is the key word. A switch to lesser-known scripts like Galaxy Video is a welcome risk that, in theory, should resonate with the student body—a crowd usually more inclined to, say, rent a video than go see live theater.

But the risks associated with Galaxy Video’s shallow Gen-X script and whiplash pace is where this feel-good prospect comes undone quicker than Judd Nelson’s career. In fact, it’s ironic that the very attention paid by UM serves in part to highlight the play’s shortcomings.

Morales’ original Galaxy Video production was limited by a small stage and a set consisting of some side panels and two modest video-store aisles backlit with Christmas lights. It was up to the audience’s imagination and some deft direction to accept that the story unfolds in a video store boasting “an infinite selection” of titles—one customer is pointed to “the 27th aisle, fifth shelf”—and so huge that a cast of 30 can all chase their own storylines without bumping into each other in the new releases section. Of course, there’s no way to recreate this video franchise on stage, so Morales decided not even to try, to leave the set barebones and unreal, and focus instead on pacing and media—if there’s a limited set to change, then the production can move that much quicker from scene to scene, laugh to laugh.

The Masquer Theatre, however, is much bigger than what Morales had to work with, and the challenge is how to fill that space. UM’s set features three video aisles and a large front counter, all on wheels. Between each scene, these components are shifted to different areas of the stage—sometimes just a few feet—to give the impression of new sections of the store. Not only is this level of juggling unnecessary (Morales proved it so), but, more important, it slows down a play that needs to skip along and swing our heads and keep us on sensory overload—after all, this is for an MTV crowd—before we tune out or, worse, recognize some of the story’s flaws.

Galaxy Video is almost funny enough, despite its broken pace, to disguise this startling fact: 45 minutes in you have no idea on what or whom the play is focused. It may be implied that Russel (Jack Zagunis), the apathetic employee who roams the store dispensing advice, is our protagonist. But only after a dismal dance scene involving a boombox-toting trio that occurs more than halfway into the play are we given the information that tells us why we’re supposed to care about—or even focus on—Russel amongst the crowd of characters.

And even then it’s still not entirely clear: The two roommates who open the play (Jackson Palmer and Lee Young) and are followed throughout offer a mildly compelling struggle over who gets to choose the evening’s rental; a volatile couple (Joshua P. Smith and Valinda Ghee) fights a similar battle that, in the end, overlaps with the quarreling roommates; and a narcoleptic staffer (Cassie Gonzales) seeks love. That’s not even mentioning the scene-stealer of the night, an employee with short-term memory loss (Timmy L’Heureux) who doesn’t have much of a storyline but, well, should. All in all, it’s a goofy collection of eccentrics, but it’s also a lot to sort out and somehow turn into a story.

Watching Galaxy Video you get the impression Morales was having too much fun letting the characters play around and quote movies before he finally decided to wrap it into a story in the last 30 minutes—and maybe that’s all he wanted. It’s a fun romp, a collage of loosely affiliated and entertaining kooks. It succeeds in providing a departure from the normal theater experience and avoids the predictability of a standard story arc, and maybe we should just accept it for that. After all, nobody ever said pop culture was deep.

Galaxy Video plays at UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, April 30, and May 3–7. Performances start at 7:30 PM, and tickets cost $7. Call 243-4581.

arts@missoulanews.com

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