Denial is a powerful thing. With the state of the world blanketed in uncertainty, it is a modern day miracle that we can simultaneously hold a daily routine while being stalked by things like the specter of climate change. Even in the face of such morbid existential threats, we will often include in pleasantries: ‘nice to have warm weather for winter, isn’t it?’. To that, Rivendell’s new production responds, ‘no, it's not’. The Tasters has complacency in the crosshairs. Rivendell has created an incredibly strong production that will have you leaving the theatre ready to change the world.
In the dystopian world of The Tasters, political leaders keep dying. Grand rulers from each of the world’s four districts hold a tight, authoritarian fist over their constituents. Under their regime, any civilian foolish enough to join the rising citizen’s rebellion will be detained on sight in the name of keeping the peace. Poison is the rebellion’s weapon of choice. Resistance operatives in the ranks of the government carry out targeted assassinations by poisoning the food of the supreme leaders. In response, the government created a special division of taste testers whose sole job is to eat the food prior to being consumed by the leaders. Some tasters sign up for the glory of their country, some because it’s a well paying gig, and others involuntarily. The whole division gets shaken up when the leader of the people’s rebellion is captured and enlisted as the Taster ranks.
The story beats here are tried and true: The Tasters takes clear inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games for its overarching plot and world building. Unfortunately, no points are awarded for originality of plot (especially the ending, which relies too heavily on deus ex machina to create an emotional ending). This is a stock, grim picture of a near future that is begging to be saved by a heroic resistance who will take the power back. However, the predictable plot is saved by The Tasters’ villain. While there is an unequivocally evil dictator in the mix, the true antagonist of The Tasters is the complacency of the others.
This subtle twist in focus creates an astounding amount of brilliant monologues and nuanced points for the actors to work with. It is incredible to witness how deep this production goes into its themes while inside of the shell of a modestly overdone dystopian tale. Each character dialogue is delivered as a gut punch because it is so instantly applicable to the audience. This, of course, would not be as impactful without a talented ensemble. The acting in the ensemble is definitely some of the better I’ve seen at Rivendell, constantly competing against itself to see who can deliver the most captivating display of emotion and desperation. These words demand to be felt, and the talented actors of the ensemble will make you feel it.
Despite being packaged as a run-of-the-mill dystopian nightmare, the theming and focus of this story are relevant and demand to be seen. If you can pardon the forced story beats, this is a very powerful piece that may inspire you to pick up a sign and join the revolution. (Ryan Moore)
The Tasters continues at Rivendell Theatre through February 16. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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