We have all, at this point, had that one quarantine experience. I will title it the Zoom Quest of Trying to Have an Online Conversation and Awkwardly Failing, or ZQoTtHaOCaAF, for short. Dacha Theater’s latest brilliant creation, Secret Admirer, invites watchers to journey through every possible Zoom adventure, from ZQoTtHaOCaAF to EFRtBTEaORC (Estranged Friends Reunite to Battle Their Evil and Outdated Robot Consciousnesses), in a heartwarming, inclusive, and hilarious test of the limits of virtual—and interactive—theater.
In a positively perfect ode to 90s-era kitsch, Secret Admirer centers around an answering machine board game in which a group of four friends compete to discover which cute dude is their fated prom date. The dudes, played delightfully stereotypically by four live performers, drop clues in the form of strange, but touching, in-game messages.
With the aid of a handy fillable PDF deduction sheet, players (and any audience member who loves a retro logic puzzle), can determine who is meant for who and whose locker hides the crown, sash, scepter, and corsage. These items, apparently of utmost importance to any true 90s girl (and no one else ever), give players extra points when guessed correctly—and may or may not be the one thing separating us all from artificial intelligence domination! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The four players are old high school best friends (“the carpool crew”) who have reunited at long last for a bridesmaids party (in-person wedding yet to be rescheduled). So the show centers around a group of somewhat estranged friends and their computer screen reunion over a childhood board game. What else could offer such a tantalizing opportunity for delicious awkwardness? Secret Admirer does not disappoint, spicing their conversations with authentically halting small talk, decades-old half-truths, and bombshell, if vintage, revelations.
But the effortlessly natural performers do not hold back on the sweeter side of things, either. There are age-old bestie traditions, adorable jokes, and, eventually, the heartfelt apologies we were all waiting for. Somehow, the four friends manage to make watching people play a simple, if protracted, board game into some of the most wholesome and emotionally authentic acting Zoom has to offer.
Dacha Theater manages to not only create some old-friend-reunion magic through a series of pixels, but invites the audience into the gooey mess of emotions, too! We get to play along, filling out our own deduction sheet, voting on the best ways to help out the carpool crew, and ultimately—through a complex set of increasingly suspicious phone calls and bit.ly quests—saving the day.
Or at least, that’s how it was the night I went—the performers are all playing the game for real and the spins are truly randomized, resulting in different pairings, and a whole different show, every night.
The audience is encouraged to participate in polls from the Zoom call that opens the evening and chat in the Twitch feed that broadcasts the main bulk of the show. (In order to message in Twitch, you need to make an account, but it’s free and super easy; I did it in under half a minute.)
The whole experience is a deeply collaborative effort: everyone is always willing to remind each other of clues in the chat and the ever-helpful BFF 2000, an artificial intelligence played by Emily Huntingford, cheers on every success or failure.
Through this show, Dacha Theater manages twin exceptional computer-era feats: real human connection between four tiny Zoom squares—and all while throwing an audience into the action, too! You can participate as much (or as little) as you want. There are many different ways to experience the show and many different audience member types you could choose to embody.
If you buy tickets at least a week in advance, they will send the deduction sheet by post, you can print it out from their website, or you can stare obsessively at the computerized version from the ticket confirmation email—all of those comprise the enticing option of going full Sherlock and poring over every checkmarked detail. Or you could be the audience member who’s just in it for drama, drooling over the interwoven dynamics and dusty secrets. And then there always has to be somebody who just sits back and occasionally hits up the Twitch chat with commentary on various 90s posters in the exquisitely personalized backgrounds—Leonardo DiCaprio fans, I’m looking at you.
The Twitch stream that brings us the carpool crew and all their amusing quirks is wonderfully technologically fluid. At some points, it plops us down in the standard Zoom layout we all know and love. At other times, it incorporates the digital board game, complete with spinner and satisfying moving parts. Things get especially exciting when it unseats individual Zoom squares and throws them across the screen. Computer difficulties are convincing (though hopefully not real), and in lieu of ruining some of the more exciting twists, let’s just say that the show pushes the very boundaries of live streamed-face-square-acting. My favorite moments of Zoom adaptation come in the form of the hilarious potential prom dates, who, being supposedly pre-recorded messages, get the joy of interrupting things right when they get awkward—which, given the internet delay, is truly a feat.
Secret Admirer, created by Danielle Mohlman, is an extraordinary addition to the quarantine theater hall of fame. Its fluid combination of the fun of various live streaming technologies is genius, but it’s also very easy to participate in. If you are worried, they have a very helpful FAQ link on their webpage, or if you, like me, like running into problems before asking for help, they have backup for that, too. Everything is explained thoroughly before the show by the house manager, and tech support is always ready in the Zoom chat, so it’s super easy to attend—as easy as choosing a player color between ‘bubble gum pink’ or ‘watermelon’.
Speaking of varieties of tints that pretend to be different but are actually all reinforcing the fake capitalist gender binary of color, it should be acknowledged that the board game is, well, obnoxiously dated. Decorated with cutesy graphics and pink everything, it flings strictly gendered heteronormativity all over the place.
The carpool crew is aware of this overpowering girliness and they actively deconstruct the way that they used to buy into that outrageously pink aesthetic. Now, several of them are openly queer, one is non-binary, and all of them laugh at the silliness of a game whose only purpose is to pair straight people up so that they can attend an event that the game doesn’t even include.
Ultimately, the four friends embark on a computer-screen-separated journey through some sumptuous awkwardness to question their past selves and discover who they are now, along the way becoming closer than they have in years, or possibly ever. (And all with our wonderful audience help.)
Secret Admirer is the perfect antidote to every dull Zoom call you’ve ever been on. It welcomes everyone into an inspirational, and hilarious, journey from awkwardness to real human connection.
Dacha Theater is known for a variety of improv and devised works and they have adapted perfectly to our computerized world with a sweet, funny, and, at times, delectably awkward celebration of enduring friendships and authentic connection. Their performance tickets are on a sliding scale and always offer a pay what you can option—and it’s playing for one more week!
Free yourself from Zoom boredom by hitting up an old friend and inviting them to join you virtually for Dacha’s inclusive, hilarious, heartwarmingly real ode to enduring friendship.
Secret Admirer presented by Dacha Theater is being live-streamed March 19 - April 4. For more information see here.