If you’ve ever fantasized about returning to the 19th century, when North American audiences could correct performers’ flubbed lines, question production choices, and talk among themselves over the actors all from the comfort of their seats, Mixed Company Theatre’s Shelf Life: An Intergenerational Community Play is the closest equivalent you’re going to find in Toronto.
Playwright Luciano Iogna and director Simon Malbogat shaped Shelf Life as a work of Forum theatre, a style that depicts forms of oppression on stage and invites audiences to comment on the actors’ performances and perform what they believe are corrected versions of the characters’ behaviours. The style is meant as a means of social change, and is an atypical instance of the stereotypically non-Canadian inclination to upset theatrical tradition – in this case, audience passivity – by messing with it as the moniker ‘play’ might invite one to do.
We’re introduced to the Muncie family, three generations that act out parallels between how young people and old people are stereotyped in contemporary society in scenes steeped in generic after-school specials of yore. A Greek tragedy-style chorus comments on the action with painfully simple rhyming musical interludes that only add to the diluted feel.
The actors fully commit to their blandness, to the extent that they bypass any risk of dullness. Instead, you may find yourself deep in a bout of uncanny childhood nostalgia, or simmering quietly at how many ethical red flags are being raised at once.
As siblings Ashley and Devon, Jaimie Henderson and Lucas Andersen create token self-centered teenagers. Their loud, brash rebellion against the kindnesses that keep society together deserves our sympathy for being the product of the mishandling of their willing, though undercooked minds.
Christine Balt and Stephen Sillett summon their shadow sides as Jen and Mike – condescending, overprotective parents, whose obnoxiousness is so caustic it almost conceals how dictatorial they are because they’re too overworked to remember the value of learning from failure.
Then there’s Jen’s mom, Cora (Nance Gibson), who yearns for freedom beyond the clutches of her daughter’s infantilization of her, and provides an unidealized take on how the wisdom of old age is really about teaching you how to endure more than you thought you could when you were younger.
Then it’s the audience’s turn. On opening night, Malbogat was in the zone, juggling the Q&A session, having actors replay scenes for the audience’s benefit, digesting themes of respect and compassion springing up organically around the room, and coaxing a chosen few to spontaneously put their communication skills to the test in front of us all.
This back-and-forth movement was a rush unequaled on any Toronto stage, simply for having the faith and the fortitude to put people in extended confrontational situations where their only options are to run away, or to be exactly who they are.
The most colourful example was when Malbogat asked a gentleman to replace Mike during a scene where he and Jen are aggressively reprimanding Devon for picking a fight with a senior named Phil (Don Hedger) in a movie theatre snack line. Rather than improving Mike’s behavior toward his son, the gentleman instinctively shouted for everyone to shut up, grabbed a chair, and lifted it into the air in Devon’s direction to enhance his point before Malbogat stepped in to smooth things out. This was officially my realest moment in theatre of 2016.
I could keep on unravelling, but Shelf Life is the rare work that you really have to be a part of in order to comprehend the full extent of its charm. Get in while you can.
Shelf Life: An Intergenerational Community Play runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until Dec. 4. For more information, visit: https://www.tarragontheatre.com/.