nytheatre.com review by Pete Boisvert
December 5, 2009
The self-proclaimed "fightsical" Last Life (which premieres as part of the Brick Theater's current Fight Fest series) is a violent, post-apocalyptic tale of the quest for revenge following a cataclysmic loss. Co-created by director Timothy Haskell and playwright Eric Sanders, this collaborative effort plays intriguingly with form and structure and offers numerous visceral thrills, but often fails to connect together in a coherent way.
The intentionally fractured and disjointed narrative recounts the sadistic death throes of a small group of survivors who battle each other for control and dominance following an unnamed Armageddon. The play begins with Vadir (Taimak Guarriello, who rabid fight fans will recognize from Berry Gordy's cult classic kung-fu flick The Last Dragon) dramatically vowing to seek vengeance on his enemies. Vadir is being held captive by a rogue's gallery of hostile characters—including the frenzied leader Fenrir (Jo-anne Lee), her drug-addled sister Urir (Soomi Kim), the brutal torture expert Alcindor (Alyxx Wilson), and a cannibalistic psychopath with extensive facial skin grafts aptly known as SkinFace (Aaron Haskell).
This motley crew of savages holds Vadir hostage in an attempt to force information from him regarding the explosives Vadir is trying to use to sabotage a nearby facility. Vadir and his tormentors have a long list of personal grievances between them, from dismemberments to murder. These accusations are thrown back and forth throughout the interrogations. Eventually Vadir is able to escape captivity, but his wife Isin (Maggie McDonald) is soon apprehended and held in his place.
These bleak interrogation scenes are contrasted with a series of character-expanding flashbacks. The flashbacks shed some light on each character's current discontented state, and are displayed in a variety of styles—from realistic domestic scenes (such as a lovers' quarrel or a sibling rivalry) to commercial pitches for protein shakes and real estate. However, the strangest and most interesting flashbacks of the piece belong to SkinFace, who violently negotiates with an HMO customer service call center and later receives a skin-crawling erotic massage from a young Urir.
Haskell's staging of the play is quite meta-theatrical. The main narrative is set in the characters' present, and is staged with the actors seated in a row of chairs with small prop tables next to them. The characters interact with each other in these sequences, but the actors play them directly to the audience. Flashbacks are staged in a more traditional manner in the center of the stage and both devices are abruptly interrupted by each fight sequence—a formal squaring-off underscored by sound designer Ariella Goldstein's selection of grinding, post-industrial electronica music.
The narrative of the play is frequently broken up by these showcased fight sequences. Rod Kinter's brutal though realistic fight choreography shines throughout the evening, and the ensemble executes the combat sequences with technical aplomb. The actors' martial arts skills are on full display here, and their abilities are heightened by a strong commitment to character. The knife fight staged between McDonald and Lee is a particularly effective example of how facial expressions prove to be one of the most useful tools in the stage combatant's toolkit.
In one of the evening's most creative technical choices, Haskell accompanies the show from a large special effects table set on the side of the stage. As a scene or fight achieves the height of brutality, Haskell enters to add his gory effects to the stage in full view of the audience, like a painter touching up his canvas. This device is established well throughout the piece, and makes for a surprisingly visceral experience. By removing any attempt at concealing the special effects, Haskell frees the actors to concentrate on the fight itself, while offering an ingenious solution to the most basic of stage effect questions, "Where do you hide the squib?"
The rest of the show's technical elements are more of a mixed bag. Paul Smithyman's set is quite sparse, and primarily consists of the aforementioned chairs and tables. Each scene is highlighted by a series of still illustrations (projected on appropriately eroded panels), which hang above the actors. Unfortunately, Gino Barzizza's cartoonish, pastoral projection images do not suggest the aftermath of destruction so much as a Bavarian fairy tale. Candice Thompson's costume design (a uniform series of ripped and bloodied t-shirts over cargo and workout pants) is much more effective, and provides the actors with plenty of capacity for movement while striking the right dystopian tone.
There are tantalizing morsels of detail strewn though Eric Sanders's script, but the narrative of the play is strung together too loosely. Despite hints of various past transgressions committed by both Vadir and his tormentors, the threads that tie their lives together are never made entirely clear. These mysterious connections pose tantalizing questions to the audience, but too often these questions remain unanswered. Haskell and Sanders could avoid this confusion by fleshing out the story a bit more, which might provide the audience with a more coherent theatrical experience.