Can Theatre Help Us to Better Understand the Elderly?

One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle
“One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle” (all images courtesy Sprat Theatre Company)

Despite the regular way it ticks by, time doesn’t always seem to move at a logical pace. Days blur gradually from one to the next, yet it can also feel like years have escaped in a sudden flash. This paradox of time is central to Sprat Theatre Company’s One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle, which is currently transporting audiences to the experience of time for the elderly.

One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle
Henri Shnuffle gets dressed

Sprat Theatre Company’s mission is to create theatrical experiences where “elements of design are just as important as the text and live performance itself.” In this vein, audience members arrive to “Henri Shnuffle’s apartment” on Bond Street off of Bowery and knock on the door to be let inside by a playful, but silent, young lady, played by Elizabeth Holliday. The apartment is a little too sparsely decorated, but what they do with lighting to alter each scene makes it feel like more than just a reclaimed empty showroom. When you arrive and sit around the apartment, Shnuffle, played by the expressive James Williams, is snoring in bed, while his 32-year-old cat, played by a dedicated Andy Jean Louis, is sprawled on the floor. The ghost of his younger self, played by Nicolas Cerkez, and another phantom, his dead wife, played with careful emotion by Kathy Richter, haunt the space as well. And once Shnuffle wakes up “in a state of nostalgia,” you follow his day of memories and slow movement.

The piece, written and directed by Ryan Elisabeth Reid, can evoke the feelings of discomfort of a long afternoon with your grandparents, where something as simple as getting dressed can take an agonizing age of time, even with many missed buttons. Everything moves at a glacial rate for old Shnuffle, a long retired French professor who once fell in love with an American girl in Paris. But the speed, or lack thereof, does draw you into his world of aching bones and sudden flashes of memory and endear you to his vulnerability and fragility. You worry for the guy when he stumbles out of the room for groceries, stooped and wearing a stained coat with a Mad Hatter-style hat topped with a clock face. The clocks are a very unsubtle theme, from the crowd of them on one wall with all different times, to even a wristwatch hanging off the ears of the “cat.” Time is both counting down and moving forward. The transportation with the ghosts of memory gets stronger as the day goes on, until the ending heartbreak of realizing another day has passed into old age alone.

One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle
Clocks on the wall by Henri Shnuffle’s bed

Less than 20 people can fit into the apartment, so it’s a very close experience. However, although the promotional materials assert that the audience will “touch his belongings” and “taste his food,” this level of immersive theater didn’t happen. Yet even if it was more a piece of creative and simple staging than immersive, it is intelligently done to bring you into a world where time and memories are confused. As Shnuffles says, “I keep living life over,” and through spending a day (or just the hour of the performance) with him there is this thoughtful glimpse into how time can both fall away and come back at once.

Sprat Theatre Company’s One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle continues through June 2 at Shnuffle’s apartment (54 Bond Street, Noho, Manhattan). Tickets are $20.

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