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Actress Nora Dunn, playwright Dan Rosen address Last Supper controversy
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Playwright Dan Rosen (seated, second from left) and actress Nora Dunn (seated, second from right) joined the cast and director of <i>The Last Supper</i> for a talkback.
Playwright Dan Rosen (seated, second from left) and actress Nora Dunn (seated, second from right) joined the cast and director of The Last Supper for a talkback.
Credit:Cailley Hammel

Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe, artistic director for Mercury Players Theatre, said the company hired an armed guard for Saturday's performance of The Last Supper after consulting police and filing official reports when board members received hate mail. Board members are currently deciding if a guard is needed for future performances.

Jenkins-Bledsoe made the remark after the performance, when the Bartell Theatre hosted a talkback with the play's cast and director, as well as playwright Dan Rosen, screenwriter of the 1995 film that is the basis of the play. Also present was former Saturday Night Live cast member Nora Dunn, who appeared in the film.

The play tells the story of five liberal graduate students in Iowa City who, after killing a staunch conservative in a fight gone too far, task themselves with eliminating those with what they consider dangerous worldviews -- typically conservatives, including a prominent television personality. Each week brings a new dinner guest, a new debate and a new toast to his or her demise.

The line between what is and is not considered satire is a tricky one to tread. This past week, people in Madison and beyond debated that question in discussing the play. After Isthmus' review was published, heated debate in online comments followed, and the controversy extended to the blogosphere, with commentary from Ann Althouse, Charlie Sykes, David Blaska, and Emily Mills.

While the biting nature of the online comments might have foreshadowed a tense talkback, it was instead a candid, and at moments funny, conversation between audience and creator.

Rosen took questions at the head of the dining table at which cast members had been slain just minutes prior. Audience members asked about the political implications of the play. One requested Rosen's opinions on sacrifice for one's beliefs.

"I'm sure there's things worth dying for, and you know, freedom's one of them," he said. "I don't think we're ever in danger of losing that freedom as much as we sometimes hear it."

He added, to laughter throughout the room: "Thanks for making everyone feel uncomfortable, though." Then, referring to the film's famous cast members, he asked, "Doesn't anyone want to know what Jason Alexander or Annabeth Gish are like?"

Director Douglas Holtz said he and the play's cast strived to set aside politics, and instead focused on character development as the best way to serve the story. "Ultimately, it's about people," he said. "It's about their relationships. And it's about them ultimately losing their way."

Dunn discussed her experience making the film and the provocative questions raised by the play. "We're still having this national discussion about, 'What is debate?' 'How much power do these people have on television who are speaking?' We just experienced it," she said, referring to the furious political debate that followed the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson.

"Are they provoking people to murder people who don't fully have the same point of view? There's no real answers here [in The Last Supper], I don't think, which is what I love...It makes a better play than a movie, almost."

Jenkins-Bledsoe expressed her disappointment that online readers were coming to conclusions about the play before seeing it -- sentiments that were echoed by Dunn and Rosen. "It was pretty unbelievable to think that people had such strong opinions for something they hadn't even been a part of," Jenkins-Bledsoe said. "And all I can say is, come and see for yourself."

Before the night came to a close, Rosen fielded a question about the intention of his play and what he wanted audiences to get out of the experience. He said that's something he can't answer.

"At best, we want [theater] to be art, and art is meant to be experienced...You don't want da Vinci saying 'Oh, she's definitely smiling, asshole,'" he said. "I think it's unbelievably obvious what the play is about. To me, I don't think it's that smart. I think it's easy to figure out."

The Last Supper runs at the Bartell Theatre through Feb. 12.

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