Chicago Theatre Review
The Ultimate Gift
Taste – Red Theatre Company
In what may be the creepiest, most repellent and nauseating story ever depicted on a stage, we also find, at its heart, an agonizing and poignant play about two lonely individuals desperate for human connection. Be seriously warned up front that this is not a story for the faint of heart or the easily offended. No one under the age of 18 will be admitted to this production, and with just cause. True, this is an unorthodox love story, but it’s far kinkier and more twisted than anything imaginable.
Terry and Victor, a couple of nice-looking young men, have previously met one other through the internet. It’s not clear if they connected at a specific website or if their online chats have blossomed into a relationship that’s specifically led them to this particular occasion. Both men are loners; both have reached out for some kind of human contact, perhaps even something that approximates love. Terry’s invited Vic to his place to finally meet in person, apparently enjoying the opportunity to cook a gourmet meal for their first date.
As the audience enters through the front door of the condo into the intimate theatre space (designed with style by Eric Luchen), we notice so much attention to detail. Terry’s name, for example, is displayed prominently at the entrance. There’s a stairway that presumably leads up to the bedroom, and before the play begins we’re entertained by Terry continually dancing up and down the steps, changing into the perfect outfit for his date. He then scampers into the kitchen to tend to his cooking. He fluffs the pillows and adjusts the furniture. It’s such a lighthearted pre-show performance that it belies the dark, gutwrenching drama that lies ahead. We observe a collection of framed photographs scattered about on the wall, as well as a blinking video camera that’s aimed at the sitting area. Wafting from Luchen’s practical, upscale kitchen, there’s the distinctive fragrance of onions browning in butter. The facility has a working stove and other appliances, as well as a sink with running water. Most obvious, however, is the vast array of sharp knives displayed on the counter, a foreshadow of the horror to come.
When Vic enters it’s obvious that this is the first physical meeting between these two guys. Self-conscious, awkward, overly polite, their conversation evolves toward previous online conversations, their individual work situations, Terry’s pornographic DVD collection and his obsession with the food network and the culinary arts. Cooking is one of his passions and it’s from this admission that we begin to glimpse the chilling events that will soon follow. However, nothing can prepare the theatergoer for the intense, visceral experience that lies ahead.
Victor has no family, no friends, no work buddies. He’s all alone. The two men have made a depraved pact. Suffering emotionally, beyond comprehension, Victor has decided to end his lonely life. He’s chosen to do so by giving himself entirely to Terry, the only person with whom he’s ever connected. Victor’s ultimate gift of love is to allow Terry to kill, butcher, cook and eat him. In this grotesque way, Victor will always remain a part of Terry.
Founder and artistic director of Red Theater, Aaron Sawyer has directed TV writer Ben Brand’s first play (based upon an actual event) with admirable sensitivity and respect. This is its Midwest premier. Minute beats of intimacy, telling glances and precise movements have all been carefully staged and tastefully guided. There’s not a single arbitrary or wasted moment. From the lethal manner with which Terry ties a knot in Victor’s apron to the gentle, sensual physical closeness the men share, this is a very carefully thought-out and rehearsed production. To be anything less would cheapen the emotion of this play.
As Terry, Gage Wallace is almost maniacally driven, madly determined and ever-so-slightly cunning. For this young man, there’s no turning back. Their plan has been discussed, finalized and absolutely nothing’s going to stand in the way of its execution. A few unexpected glitches occur, but Terry will not be discouraged. Through Wallace’s measured performance, we see some chinks in his armor but otherwise this is strong, stubborn man on a mission. Kevin V. Smith (so excellent in Mary-Arrchie’s “Our Bad Magnet”) is simply mesmerizing as Vic(tim?). His perspiration-soaked performance is filled with realistic desperation, honest nervousness and fear, as well as a penetrating loneliness that evolves into a dauntless dedication to the unspeakable. We fear for him at every step but, more than that, we empathize with his profound sorrow. Both of these actors offer peerless, award-winning performances that must be seen to be appreciated. They won’t ever be forgotten.
Besides its two vastly talented young actors, each willing to cross that fine line between gross and grace, this production is helmed by a talented director whose careful guidance brings this script to life. He’s joined by a team of unsung heroes who also contribute to the success of this production. Led by technical director Liam Fitzgerald, prop designers Angela M. Campos and Catherine Woods, along with special effects coordinator Ryan Oliver, have all collaborated to make the unimaginable unforgettable. Costumes by Brenda Scott Wlazlo, fight choreography devised by Zach Livingston and an excellent atmospheric soundtrack by Maxwell J. Shults provide additional dimension to this production.
Tackling so many taboo subjects, Benjamin Brand’s unsettling play explores man’s fierce, frantic need for love. It demonstrates the depths to which a person will sink in order to experience some measure of love or human connection, even if it involves degradation, mutilation or death. This isn’t a play for a first date or a show to follow a heavy meal; but it’s certainly a production that speaks volumes about the human condition, and it will stay with openminded audiences for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 23-May 22 by the Red Theater Company at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago.
There’s no charge for this production, but a donation is much appreciated. FREE Theater Tickets are available by calling 773-733-0540 or by going to either www.redtheater.org/tickets or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.