Before you sit down to enjoy Stuart Gordon’s new play “Taste,” be warned: a half-dozen people walked out halfway through the preview I attended, and a man in the audience suffered a full-on seizure a few minutes later.
Written by Benjamin Brand and directed by Gordon, this is a profoundly disturbing production, the kind that sticks with you long after the actors have taken their final bows. When I first heard that it was a play about cannibalism, I figured it would be another wink-wink black comedy filled with macabre jokes about dinner etiquette.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Inspired by an infamous true story, “Taste” is a serious examination of the twisted relationship that develops between two deeply disturbed individuals. While there are a handful of darkly humorous moments scattered throughout, the overwhelming theme of the play is loneliness and the desire for intimacy at all costs. And I mean ALL costs.
This is heavy stuff, perhaps too bleak and upsetting for general audiences. But for those willing to peek into the abyss, it’s a sight to behold.
Structured as a first (and last) date between two strangers who’ve met online, the play takes place in real time, over the course of a single evening, in a real kitchen, with actual food cooked and eaten on stage. The smell of sautéing meat and onions wafts through the theater, adding an extra layer of sensory stimulation to the performance. In fact, the set, lighting and subtly realistic sound design all help to create an intense naturalism that pays off big time once the physical horror begins. There’s nothing stylized or amusingly artificial about this play, nothing safe to hide behind. It succeeds at luring you in and then clobbering you.
The two actors deserve an enormous amount of credit. Donal Thoms-Cappello as Terry, the psychotic chef, takes what could easily have been a campy villainous role and dials it back just enough to show us a real person lurking beneath the mask. He’s alternately frightening and pathetic.
Chris L. McKenna as Vic, the main course, is quite simply amazing. There’s a deep well of sadness inside this character, a desperate longing to connect with another person, even if it means complete annihilation. McKenna brings all of that hopelessness and despair to the surface from the moment he steps on stage. He’s utterly heartbreaking. You’ve seen people like him in real life, damaged folks who just can’t seem to relate to the rest of the world. That tragic familiarity makes it doubly difficult to watch what happens to him over the course of the story.
Blood is spilled in this play. Some of the imagery is extremely shocking and sexual in nature. Seriously, this play does not pull its punches. The lights don’t fade down just as it’s about to get brutal. We see it all – including a graphic castration and penis eating sequence – and there’s nothing coy about it. But it’s the theme of the piece that’s most disturbing. It’s the emotional darkness that you’ll be discussing afterward. Grim doesn’t begin to describe it.
“Taste” is brilliant stuff and I’m glad I saw it, as hard as it was to sit through.