Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Go ahead, have a little 'Taste'

Donal Thoms-Cappello and Chris McKenna star in Taste

Never have I had a theatre experience quite like the one I had during the world premiere staging of a new play by Benjamin Brand, Taste, presented by the Sacred Fools Theatre here in Hollywood.  The story, inspired by real, ‘true crime’ events (in Germany in 2001), can only be described as incomprehensible, horrifying, and tragically beautifully.  Directed for the stage by Stuart Gordon, the play introduces the audience to Terry (played by Donal Thoms-Cappello), a meticulous and obsessively focused young man, and Vic (played by Chris McKenna), a nervous shadow of a man desperately seeking purpose in his lonely life.  Over the course of one evening, these two meet face to face after having spoken for months via the internet, having made an unbelievable agreement:  Vic will allow Terry to kill him under one condition – that Terry eat Vic’s body afterwards...

This shocking scenario is given even more weight when the audience is informed in the program that this is in fact a very true story;  one that happened almost exactly as we are about to see play out on screen.  This was a fact I was well aware of going into the show, though the details were not known to me.  My companion for the evening knew even less than I, and as we arrived at the theatre, my curiosity peaked even higher when we were both carded, informed by the ticket-taker that they had to ensure everyone in the audience was over 18 years old.  You know… because of the subject matter.  Not only was it clear that the content would suggest brutal and violent things, but that the staging itself would contain elements that were truly not for young eyes.  Needless to say, we were both intrigued.  How would they do this on stage? I wondered.  Could they possibly do something like this justice, considering how impossible a lot of it is to “fake.”  The small space was perhaps two-thirds full as we took our seats, but it was clear everyone was thinking the same thing:  What are we walking into? 

The stage at Sacred Fools Theatre
The stage itself was impressively laid out, every bit the luxury high-rise apartment it aimed to represent.  Each space was meticulously set up (office space to stage left, full kitchen upstage-center, and living/dining room to stage right), and the set designer clearly aimed to add functionality to each set piece.  The television, plugged in and working.  The kitchen (stove, sink, and refrigerator) all functioning properly.  Impressive, certainly, considering how small the theatre was.  But enough about this (although believe me, the fact that everything worked as it should is very relevant to the events to follow)… I’m sure you’re wondering just how they did it!

I will aim to leave some of the graphic details to the imagination, as well as the final moments of the play a mystery.  However, during the 90-minute run time, our characters went through an incredible metamorphosis, struggling with their own desires and coming to terms with the reality of what they were asking the other to do.  A truly compelling attempt to offer insight into the unimaginable.  To, potentially, offer a glimpse into the mind of someone so damaged that they could ever knowingly eat another human being – or knowingly, and willingly, be eaten by one. 

The play starts under familiar circumstances.  Vic arrives at Terry’s apartment, for what appears to be a dinner date.  There is laughter, some awkwardness, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing that would suggest this was anything other than a first date.  They met online.  They had a connection.  Nothing strange there.  In fact, it’s pretty relatable in this day and age.  For much of the first half of the play, not a word is spoken about what we know is truly going on between them – every description is vague, every suggestion of what will come that night is shrouded in mystery.  After a little bit of time, it becomes rather funny.  The humor appears to break the unbearable tension that is building.  A tension that certainly threatens to consume the audience.  Laughter becomes the only solution.  This balance of horror and humor is truly inspired, and Brand weaves the dialogue intricately so that we are compelled to move with Terry and Vic’s intentions – whether we want to or not.

The first scene where either character outwardly acknowledges what’s going on happens about half way through the play.  For Vic, our future victim, the tension builds too much to the point where he has to bring it up. Dinner and drinks were lovely, but let’s get down to brass tacks… How exactly is Terry going to do it?  

This was probably one of the most inspired approaches to the dilemma the director faced, which was that no matter how inventive they got with their staging, we just would never be able to see Terry cut Vic up into little pieces.  Stage magic can only go so far.  So what did they do?  Terry decides to show Vic his plan, something he’s been practicing for months, on the skinned carcass of a dead rabbit.  Difficult to watch, I grant you, yet watching Terry describe the joints, where they meet, and where is best to cut and crack… finishing with six large chunks of meat, is likely the most visceral image in the entire show.  We don’t have to see him cut Vic into pieces…  We only need to imagine it.  And by using the meat of a rabbit, we could visualize everything in our mind’s eye.   This is where the cringing started, and didn’t end until the final curtain call.

Many shocking moments followed, most notable being an overwhelmingly violent – yet funny – scene involving Vic’s male organ and his desire to have that be where Terry makes the first cut.  I’ll leave this part to the imagination, but by the end of it, every male (and female) in the audience was covering their eyes, gasping, and muttering “no, no, no, no!” under their breaths. The staging and timing was impeccable, as they showed everything (albeit behind a strategically placed kitchen island), including a massive amount of blood. The playwright knew that this was a story of a cannibal, and living up to all of our expectations, they delivered on exactly what they promised:  the eating of human body parts.  This is where that working stove really came in handy.

I’ll state again that I’ve never experienced a more shocking play.  Perhaps this was due to the unapologetic and straight-forward approach to the subject matter.  It was certainly mind-blowing in a lot of obvious ways.  But no, I think perhaps the most impressive thing I walked away with was this lingering thought that I couldn’t shake, no matter how hard I tried:  I get it.  After 90-minutes of watching these two men, clearly damaged, but also very aware of what they wanted, I couldn’t help but sympathize with both of them.  I couldn’t help but understand them.  The theme of friendship, of wanting to know that your life means something, even after death… it’s hard to shake the shear impact of this message.  And as Vic sat in a small chair downstage, looking into a camera that Terry pointed at his exhausted and pained, but grateful, face, and he spoke his final words stating he was there under his own free will, that he wanted this… a tear came to my eye.  And I realized I wasn’t sad at the thought of his death, but rather, I was happy for him.  Happy that he was getting what he wanted.

This realization that the story had led me down a path I wasn’t ready for was truly the most shocking thing about the play.  Going in, I could have never imagined I would understand either of their motives or plights.  Yet the beauty of a play is that it can take you on an unexpected journey.  And despite the horror, I can’t be anything but impressed.

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