Dark drama a bit unhinged
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.
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.