Governor General Award-winner Erin Shields’ new play, The Millennial Malcontent, examines the millennial stereotype — entitled, lazy, emotionally underdeveloped, afraid of failure and of causing offense, eager to be commoditized — by poking fun at of eight personifications of it in a comedy of manners loosely based on Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife.
Liz Peterson is a haunted vision of self-destruction as Moxy, a boozed up housewife unable to convince herself that she is deserving of love. Hers is a slowly unravelling performance dappled with tangents that showcase her impressive range on the way to rock bottom. Her loving and clinically diplomatic husband, Johnny (Reza Sholeh), is blandness incarnate — an exercise of endurance in walking the fence at all times. Johnny’s musicophile best friend, Heartfree (James Daly), floats about with a deadpan sense of humour that brings the pH of any situation back to neutral.
Charm, played by Frank Cox-O’Connell, is a villainous vlogger-musician looking to expand his following however nefarious the means. Cox-O’Connell tempers his character’s endless supply of energy with the tragic habit of speaking about emotions in logical terms, as if they were nothing but the end goals of a marketing strategy. Charm enlists his cousin Mimi (Amelia Sargisson), who is visiting from Quebec, as his assistant. Her journey to self-discovery feels organic in its staggered progress.
Faith (Rong Fu), Heartfree, student Teasel (Natasha Mumba), and computer tech Raz (Alicia Richardson) embody cracks in the satisfaction promised by curated online personas, and traditional capitalist expectations to grow up and settle down. They insist on becoming familiar with the lonely, self-conscious and unstable parts of themselves, the parts less likely to be embraced in a public forum, at the expense of being shunned by the uniformly cheery mainstream the other characters more fully subscribe to.
Howard Davis’ video and projection designs function as modes of transportation between these emotional extremes; such is the immediacy of their aesthetic. The moods they set are undeniable in their vividness. Davis’ work comprises the unmentioned ninth member of the cast. Joanna Yu’s costumes are a worthy rival in her use of explosive flourishes in fabric and colour.
As a reflection of the loneliness that is the by-product of millennial culture's obsession with online personas and seeming cool, Shields and director Peter Hinton let characters stew in their ignorance without so much as asking anyone more learned for help. There's considerable excitement in this, in watching them negotiate blind the tension between repressing their shadowy sides to be more popular, and how these unbalanced traits are shared by all and necessary to manage to live a decent life.
As a critique of millennial culture, Shields draws on the stereotype’s generalized tropes to craft jokes and symbolically-charged scenes that deconstruct the “millennial worldview” from within.
The music video scene, in which Charm marvels at the reality of his tears, and the masturbation scene, in which Moxy, Mimi and Raz each mimic a man pleasuring himself, are ruthless in the laughs they wring out of a commitment to tailor themselves to the widest possible audience. They also highlight the primacy of performance and play in developing an identity, trying on different faces until they find one, or a patchy assemblage of many that fits. These two scenes make being oneself a fluid idea that could go infinite ways.
Expect some minor heavy-handedness when it comes to openly diagnosing why millennials seem to be so isolated (surprise: it’s lack of face-to-face communication), and a slight sense of busyness due to an overabundance of ideas; otherwise, I’ve no gripes. The Millennial Malcontent dares to speak to its subject faithfully, and, to paraphrase Moxy, makes a compelling case for raising the standard of what we’re able to think of as a triumph.
The Millennial Malcontent runs until April 9 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. For more information, visit http://www.tarragontheatre.com/.