Fasten Your Seat Belts
Nicolas Billon’s brilliant, brutal play Butcher is a white-knuckle revenge tragedy.
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
Runs to Nov. 14
Say “Lavinia” to anyone who knows their Shakespeare and they’ll immediately think of the tragic daughter in Titus Andronicus, who is viciously raped and mutilated in an act of revenge against her warrior father. But after you see Butcher, Nicolas Billon‘s brilliant, gasp-inducing thriller at the Theatre Centre, you’ll come away thinking about a new, if no less tragic, Lavinia.
In Billon’s play, making its hotly anticipated Toronto debut, Lavinia is a tiny Eastern European country where acts of genocide occurred during a civil war. It all happened more than 20 years ago, but its horrors and their repercussions are about to rock a quiet east-end Toronto police station in the early hours of a Christmas morning.
That’s where Josef (John Koensgen) has been deposited, drugged, and confused, with a Santa hat on his head and a butcher’s hook dangling from his neck. The detective on duty, Insp. Lamb (Tony Nappo), is stymied: the old man, who is also wearing a military uniform, doesn’t speak a word of English. He just keeps muttering a phrase in some obscure Slavic language. Lamb has Googled it and thinks it’s Lavinian. Stuck on the meat hook was a business card for a lawyer, Hamilton Barnes (Andrew Musselman), who has shown up at Lamb’s behest but doesn’t recognize the man. Their hope for some elucidation rests on the interpreter that Lamb has also summoned, but who has yet to arrive.
When she does, the plot takes its first sharp turn and never stops. There are so many jolting twists in Butcher’s 85 minutes that you may wind up needing a neck brace.
Without giving too much away: the interpreter, Elena (Michelle Monteith), believes the old man is a Lavinian general wanted by Interpol for war crimes. Hamilton, however, is a little too quick to challenge her assertion. Then Lamb gets back on Google to research the general in question and, seeing a photo of him, comes to a startling realization.
Enough. That’s all you’ll get from this critic. Take another step and we get into spoiler territory. But we can say this: Butcher is one of the most artfully constructed plays we’ve seen in a long time. And that Titus Andronicus reference is no mere whim on Billon’s part: like Shakespeare’s tragedy, this one deals with wartime atrocities and the cycle of revenge, but places it in the modern context of the International Criminal Court and the lengthy, tortuous efforts to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.
In response to that frustrating process, Billon conceives an expedient alternative, also inspired by classical theatre: the Furies, a band of Lavinian vigilantes who take their name from the agents of divine retribution in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. It’s a group that conflates revenge with justice and dismisses talk of fair trials as “the language of civilization in a world that has seen so little of it.”
Indeed, it’s hard to think in civilized terms when confronting the kind of ruthless cruelty inflicted by human beings upon one another. And Butcher gives us a particularly horrifying example in its pivotal monologue—all the more so because the atrocity is described by Josef partly in untranslated Lavinian, so that we’re forced to imagine its horrors.
The play also includes two violent acts committed before our eyes, staged with stylized bravura by director Weyni Mengesha, so that they manage to be excruciating without being graphic. If Billon—an award-winning playwright/screenwriter whose credits include Iceland and Elephant Song—has borrowed some of the tropes of Hollywood thrillers, he and Mengesha have also made this very much a theatrical piece that works upon our imaginations and exploits the visceral impact of violence when it’s performed live.
Butcher premiered last fall in Calgary at Alberta Theatre Projects, where it was also directed by Mengesha and featured most of the cast seen here (Nappo is the newcomer, replacing Eric Nyland in the role of Lamb). The Toronto show is a co-production between Why Not Theatre and Aislinn Rose’s Butcher’s Block Collective, and builds on the Calgary version’s success. The acting is impeccable, from Musselman’s mild-mannered, English-accented lawyer (he doesn’t wear tweed, but he sounds like he does), to Monteith’s slight but steely interpreter.
Koensgen’s elderly Josef has the kind of defiant face you’d see staring out of a Wikipedia page about war criminals, and for an actor speaking only a fictional language, he communicates a great deal. (The Lavinian we hear was assiduously invented for the play by University of Toronto linguists Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradović. For more information on that, see Torontoist’s interview with Billon.)
Nappo, Toronto theatre’s go-to macho actor, is predictably perfect as the cheerfully crude detective who melts like butter when talking about his young daughters. He provides most of the play’s laughs in the early scenes, which cunningly set us up to expect (but not receive) a black comedy.
The show’s design is no less deceptive. Yannik Larivée’s set is a drably realistic police station, complete with a few perfunctory Christmas touches, which abruptly transforms into a vision of hell during the interludes of violence, thanks to Kimberly Purtell’s chiaroscuro lighting and nerve-shredding music from Thomas Ryder Payne.
When Butcher made its U.S. debut in Chicago last month, in a production by the Signal Ensemble Theatre, at least one reviewer felt Billon took his plot twists too far. You could argue that he pushes credulity at the end, when he suddenly pulls the play’s premise out from under us and shatters whatever illusions are left. But with that final stroke it seems to us that the playwright also calls into question the noble motives used to justify war and killing, suggesting they can be just as illusory.
Billon is not completely cynical, however. There’s a faint glimmer of hope in the play’s last moments that the cycle might be broken. But if we come away from Butcher reminded—as in Titus Andronicus—of the insanity of revenge, we also leave shaken by the palpable hatred laid bare onstage. It’s the hatred that continues to fuel conflicts throughout the world; a hatred that we, as audience members, hope we’ll never know.