nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
August 14, 2009
Shelf Life is a tragicomedy that takes place entirely inside of a refrigerator. This statement may be enough to pique the interest of anyone in search of the experimental, absurd, or simply just funny. The accomplishment of the production, however, is in pushing this premise beyond a long gag into a complete little universe full of relatable characters, be they eggs wailing like babies or a noble forgotten French fry.
It turns out that life inside a refrigerator is not easy. Torn from their grocery store homes, the objects spend their lives in the dark, trying to pass the hours. Those who are taken out often into the bright world outside are doomed to lose a little more of their memory with every trip. Others leave and never come back. Those foodstuffs in the fridge for the long term must watch the sad cycle repeat endlessly. The atmosphere is one of a refugee camp or detention center, with disoriented newcomers and bitter old-timers. The excellent sound and light design (a randomly occurring refrigerator hum, the shocking brightness of the door opening) are about all that's needed to transform the nearly empty stage into the shadowy refrigerated world.
We are introduced to this place through the eyes of a naive and friendly ketchup bottle. Rarely taken outside, he must witness his true love, a jam jar, slowly lose her mind as she is consumed. Molly Goforth's script is smart enough to complicate this thread with other characters, including a jaded, little-used jar of horseradish who can't stand to watch the loss scenario play out yet again, and a tender-hearted French fry who struggles to keep the situation beyond futile by easing others' pain. There's drama here, there are moments when the landscape channels something of Beckett, and the actors give a strong performance capable of eliciting real emotion from the situation.
Yet these are still objects in a fridge; we shouldn't yield entirely to the temptation of correlating condiments to the human condition, for the most interesting parts come when the language and the acting are derived from the point of view of the objects' experience, not an approximation of human life. We're never directly told what object each actor represents, we must decipher it from their language (and I hope I've gotten them right!), and in this sense, the script maintains its full integrity. While the characterization relies on some old standards (for example, an ancient box of baking soda is given gravity with a British accent), there are weird, wonderful moments when the perspective is alien and uniquely of the objects—for example, the jam jar recalling with eyes closed the experience of being eaten, or the resident thug talking in refrigerator slang (eggs are called "cracklings"). More of these moments would make an exceptional experience out of what is an imaginative, well-crafted, and oddly moving production.