Comment: BUTCHER at Theatre Kingston, Kingston, Ont.

by Lynn on November 15, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

While the production has closed, it does bear comment.

At Baby Grand in the Grand Theatre, Kingston, Ont.

Written by Nicolas Billion

Directed by Kathryn Mackay

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Andrea Robertson-Walker

Sound by Jesse MacMillan

Cast: Douglas Harrisen

Jacob James

Zoë Sweet

Greg Wanless

A very strong play with a good cast but alas the direction got in the way of the play and didn’t realize its full squirming potential.

The Story. It’s Christmas Eve. An elderly man has been dropped off by two young men at the local police station. He is wearing a military uniform, a red Santa toque and a butcher’s hook around his neck through which is a business card for Hamilton Barnes a copyright lawyer. On the card is something written in a foreign language.  The elderly man doesn’t speak English. Hamilton Barnes is summoned to the station. He doesn’t know the man. An interpreter is summoned to try and communicate with the man. The truth comes out. It’s terrifying.

 The production. The audience is on both sides of the playing area in the middle. Placed almost across the width of the playing area is Inspector Lamb’s desk. There is a bit of space between the ends of the desk and the end of the playing area.  The elderly man sits in the middle of the space, dozing. There is a door at the other end of the playing area that leads out of the office.

When the audience files in Inspector Lamb (Doug Harmsen) and the elderly man (Greg Wanless) are already there. Lamb keeps checking from his desk to see if the elderly man is stirring from his sleep. He isn’t.

The production starts in slow-motion. The lights dim on the first scene when Hamilton Barnes (Jacob James) enters the office and looks quizzically at the elderly man, then the lights go to full and the action starts properly.

Hamilton Barnes has no clue who this elderly man is. As Inspector Lamb, Doug Harmsen is accommodating, friendly, he shows Barnes pictures of his daughters. Barnes as played by Jacob James is puzzled why this elderly man would have his business card. He is a touch concerned that he’s been bothered by this mystery. Matters ramp up when Elena (Zoë Sweet) arrives to translate. Things are not what they seem. As the elderly man Greg Wanless has a malevolence that is arresting and compelling. He is arrogant, pompous, righteous and evil all at once. Zoë Sweet as Elena reveals all her pent up rage and secrets.

I won’t spill the beans about those secrets even though the show has closed. But some things must be commented upon.

Kathryn MacKay has not done the play justice with her direction. The audience’s focus is split if you have the audience on either side of the playing area. One side will miss something just by the nature of the staging. A proscenium stage setting would be more appropriate for this play than this ‘split-screen’ arrangement.

There are many brutal moments in the production—an Achilles tendon is cut, a man is strangled—yet MacKay shies away from the brutality by staging these moments in muted light and in the case of the tendon cutting, in slow motion.  There is so much activity going on regarding the tendon cutting it was not clear what was happening. And if the action is in slow motion it was hard to see who was doing what. I wondered if the people opposite me could realize what was happening.

A character orders another character to strangle the elderly man. The character says that it takes a long time to properly do it. It’s not quick ‘like in the movies.’ The playwright is giving the actors and the director a clear stage direction. Kathryn MacKay chose to ignore it again in her direction. Why? This cheats the audience and compromises the play!

And instead of staging this clearly, MacKay had the strangling happen (for my section of the audience) on the far end of the desk, on the floor, so we could not see a thing. We saw the feet of the person to be strangled straight out from the desk, the strangler straddling the person. Then in muted light with wonderful rumbling sounds (bravo Jesse MacMillan) the strangler yelled and stiffened his back and with a few quick kicks of the victim’s legs it was over in about 10 seconds. No. Not good. The direction cheats the scene of the true horror of what is happening. We could not see anything that happened to that body from my side of the theatre. The people on the other side were luckier.

 Comment. Butcher is one of Nicolas Billon’s most gripping, well-written plays. It crackles with hard-hitting dialogue and an imagination that makes a person’s eyes pop. It is a play that is compelling and should have the audience gripped with tension for all of it. But not here. The director let us off the hook and what should have been a stunning experience was just frustrating.

The production has closed at the Baby Grant, part of Theatre Kingston’s season. 

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