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Last Supper memorable

Vit Wagner

In writer-director Hillar Liitoja’s remarkable new drama The Last Supper, a celebrated dancer carefully choreographs his final performance: his passage from this stage to the next.

Chris (Ken McDougall) is dying of a degenerative illness that is probably related to AIDS. In obvious pain and determined to exit gracefully and with style, he enlists the help of his lover, an equally accomplished photographer, Val (Jim Allodi), and a sympathetic physician, Parthens (Sky Gilbert).

The play is described in the promotional material as “a performance of euthanasia”, but don’t expect a debate around the morality of assisted suicide. Chris’s right to choose death is never questioned. Instead, the drama focuses on the self-directed artistry of his final moments.

No detail, no matter how minute, eludes Chris’s preparations. He orders salmon and ratatouille for his last meal, washed down by a vintage French wine purchased at a London auction. His final acts include being photographed doing a masked performance in bed and rehearsing the anticipated moment of his death, an event so meticulously plotted that he even has instructed Parthens to inject the lethal dose at a precise moment in a favourite symphony, cued up on the CD player.

For Liitoja, the uncompromisingly avant-gardist founder of DNA Theatre, The Last Supper ranks as straight-forward, if not altogether accessible, fare. Rigorously naturalistic, the three-hour show is staged in real time, the action advancing at hardly more than the pace of an Andy Warhol documentary about the Empire State Building. This inevitably invites frequent lulls but, as is often the case with minimalism, the approach gathers momentum with time.

By transforming the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace into Chris’s bedroom, set designer Steve Lucas has created an extraordinarily intimate environment, filled with interesting artefacts from the characters’ lives and redolent of carnations and ripening fruit. The audience, sharing space with the performers, is invited to move around, although seating is available to those who need to maintain the illusion of the fourth wall, even when they’re inside of it.

The actors fit their performances to scale, with small gestures and whispers that are intelligible to everyone in the house. They even make any necessary technical alterations as they go, lighting candles and playing music, as the mood necessitates.

McDougall’s Chris, a combination of waning, wheezing frailty and unwavering determination, is never less than convincing. Allodi, perplexed but deferential, and Gilbert, confident and accommodating, are strong in support.

The Last Supper is not everyone’s meat. But for those seduced by its unhurried, slice-of-life rhythms, is likely to stand as a memorable investigation into the relationship between life, ritual and art.

Toronto Star
October 22, 1993