Dark drama a bit un­hinged

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE - By Ran­dall King

WITH Butcher, Cana­dian play­wright Ni­co­las Bil­lon has fash­ioned an in­tense, sin­gle-set thriller that feels at times like a vari­a­tion of An­thony Shaf­fer’s play-turned-film Sleuth, though with a larger cast and more tan­gled geo-po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

At its cen­tre is a dis­turb­ing mystery. A name­less old man (Harry Nelken) has been de­liv­ered to a quiet Toronto po­lice sta­tion early Christ­mas morn­ing. He wears a Santa hat on his head, but the rest of his out­fit is de­cid­edly less fes­tive. He wears a gen­eral’s uni­form trace­able to a Slavic coun­try with a history of eth­nic-cleans­ing atroc­i­ties.

Insp. Lamb (Cory Wo­j­cik) is the lone cop in charge on the night shift. He’s a gre­gar­i­ous but in­tel­lec­tu­ally lim­ited plod­der, and he is duly baf­fled by the old man, who has not only been drugged, but speaks no English. The sole clue to his iden­tity is the busi­ness card of a English lawyer with the posh name of Hamil­ton Barnes (Paul Essiem­bre), hung around the old man’s neck... with a butcher’s meat hook.

Called out of his bed at 3 a.m., Barnes seems equally baf­fled, but be­lieves the man’s na­tion­al­ity and slurred speech to be “Lavinian” (a lan­guage and na­tion­al­ity in­vented by play­wright Bil­lon with the aid of a pair of Univer­sity of Toronto lin­guists). The words “Ar­rest me” are writ­ten on the card in that lan­guage.

Called to help trans­late is Elena (Ali­cia John­ston), a Lavinian-born nurse en­listed at the end of her shift. She is alarmed by the uni­form. She in­forms the cop and the lawyer that, in all prob­a­bil­ity, they are in the pres­ence of a wanted war crim­i­nal.

It looks as if Insp. Lamb isn’t go­ing to be cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas with his wife and two daugh­ters any time soon, as things get very twisted in­deed.

This is the third Bil­lon pro­duc­tion to hit Win­nipeg stages in the past couple of months, pre­ceded by The­atre Projects’ Ice­land and a French-lan­guage version of Butcher at Cer­cle Molière.

The in­ter­est in Bil­lon has to do with his will­ing­ness to shake things up in the Cana­dian the­atre land­scape. Butcher, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­ceeds with the mo­men­tum of a slightly de­ranged movie thriller, in­cor­po­rat­ing wild rev­e­la­tions and even, dare we say it, el­e­ments of tor­ture porn.

Di­rec­tor Ann Hodges, who helmed the far­ci­cal The Hound of the Baskervilles at Prairie The­atre Ex­change last sea­son, does her best to ground the pro­ceed­ings by elic­it­ing solid per­for­mances from the ac­tors and us­ing min­i­mal stylis­tic flour­ishes.

Nelken dis­tin­guishes him­self as the mystery man; his lack of English di­a­logue doesn’t di­min­ish his abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate a cer­tain hate­ful ar­ro­gance. As the tor­mented lawyer, Essiem­bre demon­strates par­tic­u­lar range here, con­sid­er­ing his stel­lar turn in the vil­lain role in The Man Who Shot Lib­erty Valance at Royal MTC ear­lier this sea­son.

Wo­j­cik and John­ston man­age to main­tain a core of cred­i­bil­ity to their char­ac­ters as the plot twists take them to the outer strato­sphere of ve­rac­ity.

That said, per­haps the grounded ap­proach wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the best way to go, con­sid­er­ing the ma­te­rial. Butcher goes to dark, strange places as Bil­lon ex­am­ines the timely ques­tion of jus­tice ver­sus re­venge. (It seems es­pe­cially per­ti­nent with re­spect to the re­cent Paris at­tacks, but un­for­tu­nately, it will al­ways be per­ti­nent.)

Hodges strives to main­tain cred­i­bil­ity, but as the plot grows more out­landish, one won­ders if the play would have been bet­ter served mounted as the gothic Grand Guig­nol en­ter­prise — al­beit with a so­cial con­science — it was meant to be.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Tom Du­gan pro­vides a pow­er­ful, charis­matic per­for­mance as the ti­tle char­ac­ter in the 90-minute, one-man show based on the life of Si­mon Wiesen­thal.

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