There’s something familiar about the gray, dystopian world of playwright Meghan Brown’s “The Tasters.” Enslaved women speak with reverence about life under the benevolent, ever-watchful eyes of their “Great Leaders.” They parse their speech to appease the volatile men who control their lives. When they are raped, they pretend to enjoy it because any display of agency means risking a trip to the “infirmary,” which is code for torture.
Director Devon de Mayo’s staging for Rivendell Theatre has shades of Gilead, the hellish nation of Margaret Atwood’s classic “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood has long stressed that nothing happens in Gilead that hasn’t already happened (or is now happening) to women in real life. “The Tasters” is no retread of “Handmaid,” but Brown’s story of women forced to eat food that might be poisoned also sometimes feels not entirely fiction-ish. History is filled with examples of prisoners used for heinous purposes, medical experimentation among them.
In Rivendell’s uneven but fascinating production, the prisoners are Bianca (Paula Ramirez), Corrine (Daniella Pereira) and Elyse (Shariba Rivers). They have been conscripted to serve the Great Leader of the North. They get free housing and sumptuous meals, an almost unimaginable bounty in a land gripped by famine. There’s only one catch: Maybe the food will kill them. If it doesn’t, the meals are deemed safe and Great Leader feasts.
Great Leader is never onstage, but his General (Eric Slater) does his bidding and smugly insists the Tasters are safe. It’s not like the West or the South where Tasters die every week, he smugly asserts. And the North is certainly safer than the East, whose Great Leader was recently assassinated. The General’s riding high, having caught Elyse, lionized leader of a ferocious rebel force bent on destroying the patriarchy. Bianca, meanwhile, feels safe, too. She’s pregnant with the General’s baby. He would never hurt her, she says. Not while there’s a child on the way.
At its best, “The Tasters” confronts audiences with the kind of questions we all hope we never have to answer. Elyse insists that “complacency is complicity.” Bianca insists “It’s stupid to be brave” and “better to be safe.” It’s tough to say who has the high ground: The heroic revolutionary who has caused countless collateral deaths (Bianca’s entire family among them) in the name of a cause that might have been lost from the outset? The pregnant woman whose mere survival is a form of rebellion? In “The Tasters,” the enemies are clear, as is their ability to sow doubt and division in anyone who questions them.
Brown’s script is strong; Rivendell’s ensemble is uneven. Rivers’ Elyse has unmistakable, irresistible authority. There’s no flash or once-more-into-the-breach heroics, yet it’s clear Elyse is a charismatic warrior who could lead armies through the very gates of hell. Ramirez displays admirable range. In one passage, she repeats the word “bump,” her nickname for the baby. It starts as a loving maternal endearment. It ends as an uncontrollable scream for deliverance, the product of a mind this/close to breaking with reality. Slater is also effective as a General who is the very model of a modern male mediocrity: He’s a man who worries about getting rejected while the women around him worry about getting killed.
Unlike the rest of the ensemble, Pereira’s Corrine is more melodramatic than a silent movie, but with bellowing vocals played for incongruous belly laughs. Collin Quinn Rice fails to register as the underwritten Lt. Sawyer, one of the General’s underlings; Rice is memorable primarily for his jaunty beret.
Set/projection designer Yeaji Kim’s video is more distracting than enhancing, particularly in its repetitive use of flying geese. (Those geese are also a plot hole. If they as plentiful as the script indicates, hunger shouldn’t be such a cataclysmic issue). On the plus side, Rebecca Duff’s costumes are excellent. Corrine and Bianca’s uniforms evoke North Korean prison uniforms, while Elyse’s palest-purple, leather-like embellishments play up her authority. The General’s military garb — complete with red piping and golden epaulets — looks like something Kim Jong-un would wear out to dinner.
Finally, Mary O’Dowd’s food props are outstanding. When chicken and dumplings show up on the menu, you can actually smell them. It’s one last bit of verisimilitude in a drama that doesn’t always seem entirely make-believe.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.