The Vortex is, without a doubt, one of Austin's most eclectic performance venues, with productions ranging from avant-garde operas and political agitprop to world premieres of new dramas. The company's latest offering, "Last: An Extinction Comedy" (through April 27), is a devised work sitting somewhere at the midpoint of all three.
The play is a dystopian comedy, set in the ruins of a society destroyed by environmental collapse, focusing on a traveling band of sketch comedians who survive by putting on skits and musical numbers that tell people about the Earth that once was. Half the show follows the troupe's misadventures as they come to the city of New Camelot (a seeming utopia that, in true dystopian fashion, holds a dreadful secret), while the other half consists of their sketches.
"Last" is a devised work, meaning that the members of the company and director Rudy Ramirez worked together to create the story, characters and dialogue whole-cloth. As is often the case in such a work, the larger narrative is the weakest part of the script, relying on a handful of tried-and-true science fiction cliches and predictable plot twists.
The characters and their personal stories, on the other hand, are more interesting and nuanced, frequently hilarious, and in a few places quite touching. It's in the semi-improvised interactions between them that the main story is at its strongest, though the highlight of "Last" is the moments of shows-within-a-show. The troupe's sketches are witty and whimsical and pull from a melange of cultural references (particularly musical theater), in a manner reminiscent of Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play."
Most importantly, though, it's in these sketches that "Last" most directly fulfills its premise of political commentary on the nature and threat of extinction, exploring the ways in which we ignore issues of climate change at our own peril. In these moments, the cast become a not-so-twisted mirror distortion of the audience, laughing and dancing as the world burns around us.
Throughout, "Last" features innovative staging (which is no surprise, given Ramirez' strong eye for theatrical beauty) and gorgeous lighting (thanks to designer Patrick Anthony), but the lion's share of the work in this production is done by the cast, who excel at embodying the strange, quirky, semi-surreal characters.
Of particular note is Vortex artistic director Bonnie Cullum, returning to the stage after a 20-year hiatus. She is given much of the play's heavy lifting, with a dramatic monologue that relays the social and ecological backstory with a sense of charm and sympathy that goes for real pathos rather than comedy.
Although its story is somewhat uneven, "Last" is a funny, fast-paced, goofy take on one of the most important issues of our time, laced with a dark, cynical edge as well as a deep, sympathetic love for its characters.