RATMASTER'S MOVIE OF THE WEEK, at Cafe Voltaire. "Life takes you by surprise"--that's the least of the truths discovered by 31-year-old improv actor Jeff Carpenter when, riding his bike, he was shot in the head by a punk in a car on September 4, 1995. Though he was operated on for five hours and hospitalized for two weeks, Carpenter lost his left eye (he calls himself a "cyclops") and was out of work for months.
Graphic and grim, this harrowing 80-minute confessional, crisply directed by Joe Bill, offers Carpenter's forthright take on a senseless calamity. He acts out people's honest or hypocritical reactions to his misfortune at a benefit staged at ImprovOlympic. He relates his disarming composure after being shot, the agonizing CAT scan, his spartan hospital stay, his refusal to return to his native Georgia, his theological doubts, the challenge of a prosthetic eye, and the changes he sees in others and himself. (He drinks more, feels a sudden rage at the sight of young Latinos, and worries about his future sex life.) Above all, to a chirpy ragtime backdrop suggesting false innocence, Carpenter repeatedly reenacts the crime.
Considering the uniqueness of Carpenter's testimony, it's absurd to question what's art and what's therapy. After you see his broken glasses and hear about the "Samaritan" who asked for money after helping him to the hospital, his story seems too real for judgment. And though he cites a few cases of unexpected kindness, mostly he shares an understandable depression, embodied in images of a Ratmaster who plays dice with human happiness. You know this script is far from over.