Faint overhead lighting, in the shape of a window silhouette, illuminates a stage populated only by essential bedroom furniture: a bed, a nightstand with a lamp, a small table. Muted birdsong is overtaken by tempestuous music as two barely-seen figures appear to struggle in the bed. After one departs, the other remains to be spotlit and lectured in philosophy by a bodiless voice calling itself 'Zarathustra.'
This is not what Gordon Tanner’s Last Man in Universe Alpha-II, the first of two 50-minute one-man plays put on by Theatre Projects Manitoba, is about.
As viewers discover once 'daylight' makes its way onstage, the play is about a disgruntled former employee of a large agricultural corporation. This employee came to a profoundly disturbing realization while investigating a facility fire at one of the corporation's massive hog barns, and committed a terrible crime after coming to said realization. When we meet him, he is in a hotel room, fearful that the authorities will come to apprehend him, and making a video confession to the owner of the corporation.
In this harried, often-sidetracked confession, our unlikely hero emphasizes the plight of the pigs, the heinous way in which they lived and the horrible way in which they died. He also points to a 'new view' in society, which neither mourns the pigs nor assigns any blame to those who might be responsible for their deaths. This 'new view' simply calls the incinerator that the hog barn became a "systemic accident"; under the old view, such an 'accident' would have cost someone their job, if not the company its licenses.
As the stage lights fade on the final scene, the emotionally exhausted man has completed his confession, and sees little hope in his future, or the future of a society that could callously shrug off such horrors as the deaths of 15,000 hogs.
After a 15-minute intermission, the lights come up on a chic restaurant scene, setting of Steven Ratzlaff's one-man Last Man in Puntarenas. Tables for two or four people surround a table of six, where a single gentleman is in the process of a thank-you speech to the five balloons representing his fellow dinner guests.
It becomes clear that this man is either quitting or retiring from a position he's held for a number of years, and his colleagues are present to pay their respects - which quickly turn to rejection as our main character becomes increasingly inebriated and prone to increasingly crass comments about medical tourism, the Health Sciences Centre's handling of paediatric cardiac surgery debacles in the 1990s, and pregnancy. One by one, his guests leave, until he is left alone to examine his son's premature death, the subsequent breakup of his marriage, and the malpractice suit that left his ex-wife grasping at a straw labelled "Your son didn't have to die."
The kind-hearted waiter (Gordon Tanner) then joins our main character and invites him to finish his speech. Confused and flattered, he tries to do so, but he has lost his stride, and is now filled only with emptiness and questions.
While both "Last Man" plays (the titles seem to evoke T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men") feature minimal props and, at most, a cast of two, this allows the social commentary to stand out more clearly. Tanner has a bone to pick with big business and its ability to deflect blame onto a faceless 'system' that makes humans its victims and is outside of anyone's control. Ratzlaff's target is a medical system guilty of similar offenses. People die, their livelihoods are lost, they are rendered penniless, empty, and grieving while corporations continue to hire armies of lawyers and make lots of money at their expenses - this is the underlying message of the two main characters, standing alone amidst the wreckage of their lives.
After being wowed by Tanner's intense diatribe against big agribusiness, viewers wander back into the auditorium completely unsure of what will hit them next. Yet Ratzlaff's script does not build gradually into a revelation of the central problem and then a cliff-hanger anticlimax, the way that Tanner's did. Instead, Ratzlaff succeeds in alienating the audience as well as his character succeeded in alienating his. Perhaps this is intentional. Ratzlaff could want to emphasize that his antihero, unlikeable as he is, was once a family man with a loving spouse, who lost everything to an uncaring system - everything including the personality traits that made him likeable. But this protagonist lacks the endearing traits that Tanner's had: stumbling over words, tense and exaggerative in a comical fashion, with an almost manic energy. That energy is missing from the second half of the evening - and beginning late at just after 9:30 p.m., that second half feels twice as long as the first.
Last Man in Universe Alpha-II: ****
Last Man in Puntarenas: **