by Lynn on November 2, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Set by Yannik Larivée
Costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: John Koensgen
Michelle Monteith
Andrew Musselman
Ella Ray Lewis-Nappo
Tony Nappo.

A psychological thriller involving revenge and justice and discovering the difference between the two in a shattering production.

The Story. It’s Christmas Eve in the middle of the night. An old man is dropped off at a police station by two young men who quickly disappear. The old man does not speak English. He wears a red and white Santa Claus cap, an old military jacket, pants, and laced up military boots. According to Inspector Lamb, who is the officer on duty, the man also had an old fashioned butcher’s hook hung around his neck and the business card of a British copyright lawyer named Hamilton Barnes attached through the hook. Inspector Lamb has summoned Hamilton Barnes to the station to question him about this mysterious man and why he has Barnes’s card.

Barnes does not know the old man, nor does he know the language his is speaking. Of the few words the old man does say in his own eastern-European language Inspector Lamb is able to find out they mean, “arrest me.” Lamb has requested a translator for so they can communicate with the old man. When the translator arrives, a nurse who speaks the language, the twists, turns, and complete intrigue of Nicolas Billon’s gripping play takes off, as we are slowly taken to the end of our seats.

The Production. Yannik Larivée’s meticulous set of the police station establishes that unadorned world; solid wood desks; straight-backed wood chairs; a paltry plant and really bad coffee. Inspector Lamb is a good natured, schlump; baggy pants, shirt, tie, a paunch, and calls his family to assure his daughter that Santa will bring her what she wants as long as she goes to sleep. As Lamb, Tony Nappo nails the quirkiness and good-natured demeanour of the man. As the mysterious old man, John Koensgen has that impatient arrogance of a man who was an officer in his native country and resents having to deal with these lesser types in the police station. It’s alleged that the old man is Josef Džibrilovo, a notorious officer in a concentration camp in his country during its civil war. Even though he can’t speak the language, that contempt is obvious. His unsmiling, baggy-eyed face is formidable. Hamilton Barnes is played with a dignified courtliness by Andrew Musselman. He suggests true confusion as to why his card should be with this man he apparently never met. The final participant is Elena, the nurse/translator, a soft-spoken waif-like woman played by the quietly commanding Michelle Monteith.

Playwright Nicolas Billon goes from strength to strength in his writing, and Butcher is Billon at the top of his game. The characters are finely drawn. The story is gripping. There are so many beautifully drawn twists and turns in the story, each one set up with detailed care, it is very tempting to reveal some of them, but I won’t. Best to let your jaw drop on your own.

Billon has written a mystery but with depth. He examines the difference between revenge and justice. Butcher initially seems pre-occupied with one and then the other. He constantly has the audience shifting allegiances with the subtlest of shifts. His writing is both brutal when it has to be and poetic. Elena says of a character that he speaks the language of civilization in a world that speaks so little of it.

Billon and his equally gifted director, Weyni Mengesha know the most powerful thing in the theatre is the audience’s imagination and they use it, and prick it to the maximum. In one scene Džibrilovo describes in his language, what happened to a prisoner in the camp, while Elena translates. When the audience has the barest of horrible facts, Džibrilovo continues, in his language, getting more and more agitated and angry, and Elena does not translate. She doesn’t need to. The audience takes over in imagining what happened, which is the point.

Billon and Mengesha know the value of melding sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) and slow-motion for gripping effect. They know that showing full on violence will turn the audience off and they will look away. So in perhaps the most breathtaking scene in the play, Mengesha stages the scene so that the audience can’t actually see what is happening, although they know exactly what is happening, but they can hear it and see the effects on the two people involved. Staggering.

Comment. Nicolas Billon has written a play that could have been ripped from the headlines and added his own twists and compelling story-telling. He has written of the desperation for revenge for some characters who have lost everything and want others to suffer as they have. And then with deft elegance, Billon illustrates how it all can stop when one of the victims of this revenge refuses to continue the chain.

Butcher is gripping, compelling, gut-twisting theatre. It’s written by a playwright with vivid imagination and a sense of story that will have you holding your breath until the very end.

Why Not Theatre and the Theatre Centre present:

Opened: Oct. 24, 2015.
Closes: Nov. 14, 2015
Cast: 5; 3 men, 2 women
Running Time: 80 minutes.

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