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A tiny, perfect suicide

H. J. Kirchhoff

Writer-director Hillar Liitoja’s previous performance piece, Poundemonium, was presented in a vast, lofty former church (now a designer furniture shop, by the way), and he filled every nook and cranny of it with eccentric action.

He has reversed his field entirely with The Last Supper, subtitled a performance of euthanasia. The already cramped Passe Muraille Backspace has been even further reduced, to bedroom size, and the audience is invited in to witness, in intimate detail, a tiny, perfect and socially sanctioned ceremonial suicide.

Chris (Ken McDougall) is the painfully, terminally ill dancer who partakes of this last supper – salmon and ratatouille – on the last evening of his life. The food and the evening are both lovingly prepared and served by his lover, a photographer named Val (Jim Allodi). No illness is ever specified, but it is clearly wasting and intermittently excruciating. Chris is gaunt, bed-ridden and horribly weak, and McDougall speaks in a hoarse whisper throughout, barely moving but emanating amazing emotion and personality; it’s an extraordinary, courageous performance.

Val attends to all of Chris’s last wishes on this night: the right music (mostly lush, romantic strings and horns); a final viewing of 2001; the perfect wine; reminiscing over photos of their travels; last looks at favourite works of art, including some of Val’s photographs. Allodi is low-key, almost reserved, for the most part, although his bereavement, when the time arrives, is devastating to watch.

This is an understandably low-key drama, but Sky Gilbert finds an even lower gear as Dr. Parthens, who assists during the evening and oversees the final moments, administering the fatal injection (“Parthian shots”). Gilbert – bulky, broad-shouldered, shaved bald and dressed in black – looms whenever he is in the room, but plays Parthens in a slow-motion monotone.

This is perhaps intended to suggest the dead hand of the bureaucratic apparatus that would inevitably spring up if assisted suicide were legal (a point nailed when the ambulance attendants arrive to take away the body), but Parthens feels like a wasted character or an unfinished theme, and is a dramatic dead spot in the production.

The press material says “We presume a time when death is legal,” thus removing the play from the controversy of “the right to die”, even while plainly taking a position in favour of it. But The Last Supper is not about the right to die, it is a romantic fantasy about a perfect voluntary death, an up-close look at a moment when death and love intersect. (It is also genderless; the neutrally named Chris and Val could be any loving couple.)

There is some gentle humour, mostly courtesy of McDougall, and several enormously moving scenes. But this is challenging theatre in many ways: apart from the almost embarrassing intensity and intimacy of the performances and the subject, there are long stretches of time when nothing happens; what does happen is often banal.

Further challenge: except for the condensed 2001 and some apparent compression in Chris’s nap-times, the three-hour show is done in real time. The couple of dozen possible viewers are given a choice of permanent seating or the right to roam around the bedroom set (designed by Liitoja and Steve Lucas, and dressed in loving detail by Wendy White). I recommend roaming; you can see better, and the seating is uncomfortable in either case.

The Globe and Mail
October 29, 1993