Review of The Last Supper at the BeBe Theatre

Early in the show currently playing at the BeBe Theatre, a character named Zach asserts that the true test of political commitment is not what you’d be willing to die for, but what you’d be willing to kill for. These words turn out to be rather prophetic for Zach. Zach is basically the incarnation of every negative Southern stereotype you’d care to imagine, plus a few extra thrown in for good measure, and when, shortly after his pronouncement, he dies a violent death, it’s pretty clear we’re meant to feel he had it coming. After all, he’s just up and tipped a whole herd of cows held sacred not only by the roomful of liberal graduate students who are his dinner hosts, but by the audience watching this unfortunate business. Probably it’s all for the best: without Zach, the world is, in the words of one of the grad students, “a better place.” Which raises the question: Why not “do the right thing” and whack a few more of the world’s Zachs while we’re at it?

And thus, before you can say, “Please pass the olive tapenade,” five otherwise harmless, liberal-minded young paragons of the middle class have become serial killers. I can think of a few reasons why this premise might sound familiar. First, it lives out the perennially helpless revenge fantasies of liberal voters everywhere, but especially in America during the last administration. And second, it’s taken whole-cloth from the 1995 Stacy Title movie, The Last Supper. Dark Horse Theatre makes no attempt to hide this source; in fact, it seems to be artistic director Emily McClain’s modus operandi to adapt popular TV and film sources to the stage. (The company’s production history includes last spring’s Heathers and last fall’s The Twilight Zone. Audiences who attended those shows will see many familiar faces in the cast of The Last Supper.)

Before saying anything else about the current production, I should confess that I haven’t seen the movie. On the one hand, this freed me from what (I imagine) would be the unavoidable annoyance of constantly comparing between the remembered movie and the play happening in front of me. Or maybe people like doing that? Maybe that kind of double vision is all just part of postmodern fun? Be that as it may, even just knowing that the show was based on a movie kept part of my brain occupied with questions along the lines of “I wonder what they changed?” And I can’t help but feel that some of the show’s weaknesses derive from the difficulty of this sort of translation. After all, a lot of the dramatic impact of a scene in film is achieved through the cut, i.e. by editing together different segments of footage. This same cutting effect is extremely difficult to reproduce in live theatre, with the result that most screenwriting reveals an odd mushiness when transferred to the stage. There’s just no way to approximate the instantaneous shift among perspectives within a scene, and locations between them, that the editing room makes possible. On stage, the scenes, for all their “cinematic” brevity, will tend to lack dramatic sharpness.

Emily McClain, who not only directs the show but also did the adaptation, finds some very creative ways to address these challenges. Notwithstanding a couple of insufficiently focused scenes, the overall result is quite impressive. And clearly, McClain’s artistic collaborators are top-notch. Matt Kaufman’s lighting design performs minor miracles with the BeBe’s limited light plot, and Peter Brezny’s video work and sound design are highly effective without being overpowering — a serious danger when mixing video and recorded sound with live performance. The cast also boasts a number of very strong performers. (In fact, the number of strong performers seemed to increase as show went on and everyone relaxed into their parts.) The core cast — who play the grad students — work extremely well together as an ensemble, and their scenes are among the most solid. Sarah Carpenter, as Jude, keeps the acting grounded in a realism that plays well in an intimate space like the BeBe, and Stephanie Hickling convinces as the seething, resentful, and finally insane Luke. Among the actors playing minor roles (generally the “victims”), Delina Hensley is impressively restrained as Sheriff Alice Stanley, Peter Brezny manages somehow to be at once both sympathetic and diabolical as Norman Arbuthnot and Tom Chalmers gives three brilliant and utterly distinct turns as The Rev. Gerald Hutchens, Doug, and George.

Overall, Dark Horse Theatre provides a very entertaining evening, and for $10 it would be hard to beat. One final word, though: the publicity for the show says something like, “Recommended for mature audiences only.” Dark Horse is being circumspect here. Granted, there’s some strong language in the show, and, well, a bunch of murders, but it’s nothing your average teenager wouldn’t have seen much more graphic versions of on prime-time TV, to say nothing of them interwebs.

The Last Supper, directed by Emily McClain. Video Production and Sound Design: Peter Brezny. Lighting Design: Matt Kaufman. Featuring: Peter Brezny, Sarah Carpenter, Jeremy Carter, Tom Chalmers, Trina Egen, David Ely, Delina Hensley, Stephanie Hickling, Bryan Morrisey, Robin Raines, Marissa Williams.

The Last Supper runs through July 18, Thursday through Saturday nights (***note: This week’s Xpress incorrectly states the show runs through Sundays), at the BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce Street, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $10. More info at www.darkhorseasheville.com

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