Best Before by Rimini Protokoll Theatre Company

Dates and Venue January 29 - February 6, 2010 @ 7:00 pm, matinee Sat @ 2:00pm and Sun @ 4:00pm, no performance February 1 | Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch), Vancouver

Reviewer Olivia Bevan

The pioneering PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is committed to the collaboration and creative exchange of new practices, ideas and forms. Reading between these lines was tonight’s ambitious Best Before production from the Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll. A show which pushed the traditional divides of audience and performer; where contemporary futurism meets audience interaction, based in a traditional theatrical setting.

As we gradually filed in to the theatre and found our seats, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Although the literature explained what would happen, somehow I still felt a little unsure. It seemed to be a social experiment involving avatars and a theatre audience but outside of that, I was left wondering.

Initially our curious background chatter was accompanied by a solo guitarist on stage left, dressed in tan and casually strumming country-style music. One-by-one the four local experts presenting the show took to the stage: Brady Marks from Electronic Arts as director of the show, animator Duff Armour as a game tester, former politician (and Railway Club owner) Bob Williams as a politician, and traffic flagger Ellen Schultz as herself.

Our role was to take charge of our individual character on the screen (our avatar) using the game controller that sat in the pouch on the back of the chair in front of us. We lived in a world called Best Land and were able to jump, drop, bond and split. We were also able to make decisions—some were individual (Did we want to take drugs?) and some were collective (Did we want our world to have an army?). As the game progressed, Ellen reminded us of our ever-advancing years and Bob acted as newscaster announcing headlines that rocked our world such as natural disasters, enemy invasion, and unemployment issues.

It was a sociable, enjoyable evening. The audience participation was unique and endearing, and the barrier between strangers was completely flattened as we called out to one another in an effort to sway fence-sitting voters, and laughed at presidential candidates of Best Land who’d been to jail, owned firearms and cheated during a recent race.

Over time we elected presidents, bought cars and houses, had children, paired up, got divorced…all very real scenarios that we might face in a lifetime, right up until our avatar expired. At this point, I imagined a grand unveiling of our world where we would perhaps receive marks on how well we’d performed or how successful our new world was. But the presenters thanked us for our contribution, took a bow, gave thanks to one another and then, the lights simply turned back on. I was left wondering if our results would form part of a case study, if they were part of a larger social experiment, or if it was just theatre.

It was a great production and thoroughly unique, but I left feeling a little empty and confused. Was there something beyond the surface that I just hadn’t grasped, or was it simply just a bit of theatrical fun?

© 2010 Olivia Bevan