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Ultimately evil theatre
If at the end of a production of, say, Aspects of Love, the audience were to sit in a state of dumb silence, afraid to commit themselves through the act of applause, the evening would be considered a total failure. On the other hand, a complete lack of exuberant response in the blackness that follows Ultimate Night is, no doubt, a sign that all has gone according to plan. Any other reaction would be like cheering a particularly gruesome traffic accident, or your worst nightmare.
Created by the twenty-nine year old Estonian playwright, Toomas Hussar, Ultimate Night is a surreal meditation on human evil at its most banal. Profoundly unsettling, this production creates the illusion of a sudden and subtle tilting of the world. It is a total theatrical experience that begins before you have even entered the building.
Running at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre until January 26th, the play depicts the unexplained meeting of two totalitarian leaders in the apartment of a man who has been conveniently “removed” to prison. Borrowing elements from the best writers of twentieth century nightmare literature (Kafka, Orwell, Burgess), Hussar creates two characters infected with power. Men whose minds have been twisted by the knowledge that anything falling within the scope of their gaze is theirs to use or destroy.
The meeting itself is a collision of opposites, overwhelmingly rich in symbolic content and hinging on the idea that there are only two possible ways of living with power: in it or under it. Light competes with darkness, creation with destruction, silence with conversation, comfort with extreme unease.
The two dictators themselves, eerily played by Ken McDougall and Sky Gilbert, oppose each other in character from across a cluttered table. McDougall is the wooden autocrat, a soulless organizer whose only remaining human response is an obsession with the radio. Gilbert is yet more sinister as the amoral aesthete. Swilling alcohol, popping pills, smoking innumerable cigarettes, spouting bad poetry, Gilbert gives the impression that he could snuff out a life as easily as he eats an olive. With the unexpected return of Leo, the apartment’s displaced owner, Gilbert and McDougall, to that point somewhat uncomfortable with each other’s company, are given an opportunity to commune on their common ground.
Martti Arkko depicts Leo, the stuttering innocent who cannot conceive of the power that controls his life. Imprisoned for no apparent reason, he escapes and return directly to his apartment with the simple wish of celebrating his birthday in his own home. Arkko’s heart-breaking performance caps an all-round excellent acting job by the entire cast, including those not on stage.
The set is appropriately dark and all-encompassing, employing authoritarian tricks of manipulation, misdirection and lighting extremes to keep the audience on edge; a feeling that remains long after you have left the theatre. Writing from the perspective of contemporary Eastern Europe, Hussar has created a surreal atmosphere that is all-too believable, and solidified this connection with reality by dedicating the play to 1989’s unofficial meeting on the Mediterranean between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Ultimate Night is an extremely satisfying theatrical outing, but be warned, it is no Aspects of Love. It is a nightmare vision, a grotesque shadow-play whose primary purpose is not to entertain. That it does entertain is a bonus. Not to be missed.