'Best Before' is audience-friendly fun

Performance review

Von Michael Upchurch

07.05.2010 / Seattle Times

More a process than a performance, "Best Before" by Rimini Protokoll has some of the characteristics of a questionnaire and many of the elements of a game of chance.
Make that a video game of chance — because if you click on certain gaming buttons, the blips that represent you on the giant monitor onstage will get richer, poorer, go to jail, leave the country, choose a career, choose a mate, start an insurgency.
"Best Before" is the latest production by the Berlin-based theater troupe, key figures in Europe's Reality Trend movement ("Theater der Zeit"). Far from being intimidating in feel, the "show" is warm, informal, even neighborly. That may be because it was developed in Vancouver, B.C., with the PuSH International Performing Arts Festival, as part of the city's recent Cultural Olympiad.
The four "experts" leading you through the game are a retired politician, a road-crew flagger, a video-games tester and a computer programmer. As they help you create the national traits of "Bestland" (populated by computer-generated audience avatars on-screen), they occasionally step outside the proceedings and tell stories from their lives.
Computer programmer Brady Marks recalls voting in the 1994 election that helped end apartheid in South Africa, where she grew up. Former politician Bob Williams, 76, recounts his boyhood adventures on the shores of North Vancouver when it was mostly a wilderness.
The road-crew flagger and games tester also have stories to tell. But the main "narrative" consists of the decisions the audience makes. As for the creators of the show, Helgard Haug and Stefan Kaegi, there's not a peep from them all evening. Coming up with the concept appears to have been their chief role.
So what's "Best Before" like?
It's friendly fun, but also tricky, because it's easy to lose track of your "avatar" on-screen — or never find him/her (gender changes are allowable at a couple of points in the game). Also, the choices you make — to raise taxes, militarize Bestland, legalize drugs, etc. — can have unintended consequences.
There are some mischievous touches. Your avatar grows bigger, for instance, as you accumulate more "bestos," so anyone can see at a glance if you're rich or not.The "experts" onstage are personable enough. Still, it feels odd to critique them as performers, since they're clearly just folks from ordinary walks of life. Technical glitches with the programming on Thursday night derailed the big finish "Best Before" was going for. Still, it was a fascinating way to spend an evening.


Best Before