Rants And Raves: ‘Taste’
Stuart Gordon Directs A Bloody Delicious Treat
Friday, April 11, 2014
Filmmaker and stage director Stuart Gordon loves cooking shows so naturally he was drawn to a play about people who eat each other. See what he’s serving up with “Taste” (opening April 11 at Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood).
Gordon explained the appeal of Benjamin Brand’s first play quite simply as: “It’s a cooking show and I like to eat and I think that’s always part of its appeal. But it also, when I first read the script, I got physically affected by it, I had to put it down a few times because it was so strong and when a script has that effect on me that’s always a good sign. Also I loved the writing of the characters, they were very rich and interesting and you care about them and to me that’s always the most important thing about piece is that you really have to care about the people.”
Stuart Gordon may be best known as the man who brought H.P.Lovecraft’s “Re-Animator” to life on both the screen (1985) and the stage (2011 as a musical). Gordon has a penchant for horror and know how to deliver the goods as well as push the boundaries of what the genre is. He is also someone who feels as comfortable working in film as on stage, and that is rare.
“Re-Animator” is one of my all-time favorite films and when he turned it into a musical on stage, I fell in love with it all over again. Part of the appeal of the play was Gordon’s use of practical gore effects that were both campy and stunningly effective.
With “Taste” he once again enters the horror genre and stretches the definition.
Just so I don’t get accused of revealing spoilers, here’s how the play is described at the Scared Fools website: “Ripped from the headlines and based on a real event, ‘Taste’ tells the story of two men who meet online and make a unique arrangement: One man will kill, cook, and eat the other. Over the course of the evening, secrets are revealed, boundaries are tested, and a strange but beautiful relationship unfolds. Deliciously voyeuristic, sinfully elegant, and surprisingly touching, this is ‘Taste.’”
And here’s a video trailer Gordon made for the play.
Being a fan of Gordon, I was eager to check out the new work. “Re-Animator The Musical” had been such a delight that I went to LA more than a dozen times to see it and even flew to Scotland to see it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So I went into “Taste” thinking it might provide similar perverse fun. But what I got was completely different from what I expected. It’s a play that pulls you in with a sensational hook about cannibalism and ends up delivering a rather poetic exploration of a very human need to connect with someone else. Like “Re-Animator The Musical,” though “Taste” involves some very clever stagecraft.
The first thing you notice about the play is that the set has a practical kitchen with a working stove and sink.
“That’s one of the things that really drew me to this,” Gordon told me at the preview of the play on April 4, “The idea of having a cooking show where you actually smell the cooking. That’s the thing the theater can do that movies can’t do is really engage the senses. Movies are just optical illusions but theater is alive and anything you can do to emphasize that is always a great plus.”
In the opening scene the character of Terry (Donal Thoms-Cappello) chops onions and cooks them so the whole theater (which is a tiny, intimate venue of about 100 seats) fills with the smell of food. It’s a wonderful way to pull you into the world of the play and make you feel a apart of it. As the play progresses, you are practically placed in the actors laps. On the second night of previews, Gordon Tweeted that an audience member had fainted. It’s an intense experience as the play moves toward a dark, violent and yet surprisingly moving conclusion.
“I love having the audience this close,” says Gordon, “That’s the thing about theater I really like. I feel sometimes that with the big productions you feel miles away, you don’t really get that sense that it’s alive, that it’s really happening before your eyes and that’s what’s nice about a little theater like this.”
Throughout the play, characters talk about “real” moments as what defines reality. It’s a dangerous thing to do because it can pull the audience out of the play and make them very much aware of any artifice in the play.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Gordon said, “because when you have speeches about what is real, the audience is not going to accept anything that isn’t 100 percent real, that feels authentic and so it made it trickier than most plays but I’m lucky that I have such wonderful actors.”
Actors Chris McKenna (an alumnus of “Re-Animator The Musical”) and Donal Thoms-Cappello do a phenomenal job of pulling off not just impressive emotional effects but gore special effects as well. And they do that sometimes within a few feet of the audience.
“Some people are sitting here on the floor in the apartment with us,” McKenna says, “and I feel there’s a sense of danger and a sense of place, once you realize how far we’re going and that we are really doing what it says on the brochure and you’re going to see it, yeah I think it’s exciting and it must pull them in and everyone gets silent and waits to see what happens next and hear gasps.”
Thoms-Cappello agrees, “We don’t have to do too much because when people are this close and this involved, they are more close than they kind of want to be. But they can’t go away. So they are invested, they are there. And they are seeing our points of view.”
McKenna says he learned a lot from doing “Re-Animator” with Gordon: “We did so much right in front of the audience. There were times I was palming blood packs and getting chicken noodle soup in my mouth putting blood in George Wendt’s mouth that I’ve gotten pretty good at this thanks to Stuart. So we have a whole bunch of things that we do right in front of you. So it’s a challenge but they are actually my favorite parts of the show when people can’t figure out how they pulled it off right in front of us.”
Playwright Benjamin Brand originally intended “Taste” as a screenplay but finds that “it’s so much more intense as a play and I was unprepared for that. I think somewhere in my mind as I was writing it initially as a screenplay I knew that whoever was going to direct it was going to be able to cut was going to be able to edit and so things that you see quite baldly on the stage, in the film that was in my head, I thought well they will cut around this. So the scene where Terry [Thoms-Capello’s character] is masturbating Vic [McKenna’s character], I thought you’ll see a shot of his shoulder and then a reaction shot and it will be implied what’s going on but suddenly it’s on stage and you’re seeing these two actors perform this activity and it’s very startling, and so all of the sexuality, all of the violence is so much more intense than I think the film that I was playing in my head as I wrote it. It’s a much more visceral experience as a stage production. I think that maybe it’s more powerful -- especially in these front couple rows -- you’re on the same eye level as these two men and they are sitting next to you and the sweat on their brows is real and the sweat stains on their backs are real and the smell of onions that’s coming through into the audience is real. Obviously the whole thing is performance and even though it’s fiction and I know it’s fake but I’m having an experience that seems counter to what I know in my head is really going on.”
A friend had sent Brand a link to the original news story about the man convicted of having killed and eaten another man.
“I read it and thought God, what in the world motivates these two men, both of them seemed kind of very unknowable and that was interesting to me,” Brand says.
“It is amazing to me that there is so much about cannibalism in the papers these days,” Gordon says, “when we first announced that we were going to do this, the response to it was bigger than any play or movie I’ve ever done. I felt like we were hitting a nerve here.”
Brand recalls, “When I first met with Stuart he started to refer to it as horror and I said I don’t think this is horror. And Stuart said, ‘Oh you’re not one of those people, are you?’ And I fear that I might be. I don’t see it in the horror genre. I see it as a dramatic piece that has these sort of transgressive or violent elements but to me it’s a drama. I think to Stuart it is in the horror genre and because I’m not the director of the play I accept Stuart’s vision and I am enthusiastic about Stuart’s vision.”
But it most definitely is horror. What happens on stage is horrific, it’s visceral, and its riveting. To Stuart, being in the horror genre is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Shakespeare used horror to keep the groundlings interested,” he says, “and to keep the play moving along. ‘King Lear,’ which is sometimes considered to be his greatest play has a guy who’s eyes are being gouged out on stage. He uses gore effects in his plays a lot. In ‘Titus Andronicus,’ it’s wall-to-wall carnage really. But even in all of his tragedies if he were just to present poetry we wouldn’t remember him today. Benjamin’s play is very touching. It really is a love story. In a sense it is about a relationship from beginning to end, boiled down to an hour and a half.”
“I guarantee that no one coming in reading the brochure is going to get what they expect,” McKenna adds, “People don’t realize how funny it will be and how moved, how touching, how human the story is and that’s why I’ve been in love with this script for years. You take such a horrific subject matter that sounds so insane and you make it human, like show you how to start to understand these people and see inside them, you take an unbelievable event and make it real and bring you in. People leave here moved and uplifted. Yes uplifted.”
“Taste” runs April 11 through May 17 at Sacred Fools Theater (660 N. Heliotrope, Hollywood).
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