Heavy, Challenging: Nicolas Billon’s Butcher Commands Our Attention

A police station. Christmas Eve. An inspector, a lawyer, and a “John Doe” dressed in military uniform and a santa hat with a butcher’s hook hung around his neck. This is Nicolas Billon’s new play Butcher, presented by Alberta Theatre Projects at the Martha Cohen Theatre. Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Billon’s Butcher deals with heavy themes surrounding the nature of justice in an (un)civilized world.

Billon’s play begins simple enough: Inspector Lamb (Eric Nyland) has called in Hamilton Barnes (Andrew Musselman) in order to solve the identity of Josef Dzhbrilovo (John Koensgen), a old man mysteriously dropped off at the police station in the middle of the night. Lamb is unable to make any progress in the case because Josef speaks only in Lavinian (a fictional language co-created for the play by Dr. Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradovic). Meanwhile, Barnes has no idea who the man could be, despite the fact his business card was attached to the butcher’s hook found on Josef’s person. Elena (Michelle Monteith), a Lavinian translator, is called in by Lamb to help with the case, but her arrival does anything but. On this night, the Butcher will finally answer to his crimes.

The playwright grounds the themes of the play with a scenario which Lamb, a father to two young girls, muses on early in the play. The inspector reckons that if a child molester were to hurt one of his children that he would not hesitant to kill that person for the sake of achieving swift and satisfying justice. As a firm believer in the judicial system, Barnes is unsure if the scenario Lamb describes is so black-and-white.

It is this moral greyness surrounding the nature of justice that the characters grapple with over the course of the play.

Billon takes the domestic and raises it to a global scale with the Lavinian “civil war,” which brings to mind real-world conflicts like the Bosnian and Rwandan Genocides. Within the context of war, the playwright explores forgiveness and democratic justice – two ideals which Barnes holds onto despite being confronted with the weight of reality.

Though unable to give any clear answers to the questions he asks (for which there are possibly none), Billon succeeds in, at the very least, raising awareness surrounding issues that we might ignore in the course of our everyday lives, but are nonetheless the lived reality of countless of people across the globe.

Part of the play’s efforts in raising social awareness is the on-stage violence which audience members are made witness to. The on-stage violence, however challenging it may be, offers pause to consider what violence achieves, if anything at all. It is a confrontation of perhaps our own black-and-white understandings of law and order. (An intimate confrontation only possible through the immediacy of live theatre).

The use of a fictional language is certainly creative, but it also traps Billon. Elena as a translator for both the two men and the audience works fine up until a certain point. After a while, attempts at trying to logically fit in translations for Josef begin to feel forced. The driven pace the play sets on board wavers in these moments.

Billon also does not truly gain his footing until a little before Elena’s arrival. Until then, he stumbles to set-up the elements that will drive the rest of the play.

Koensgen stands out the level of expression he manages to express with a language that none besides the actors and its creators understand. The commitment by Keonsgen to the physicalities required of the character is impressive. Nyland does well with his portrayal of the boorish Inspector Lamb. Musselman’s transformation from a dull, everyman into a man thrust onto the world stage is fascinating. Monteith is menacing as Elena, a character who introduces many of the play’s twists and turns.

The content may be difficult at times, but the questions and issues Billon brings to the surface with Butcher cannot be ignored (and are best not either). Nicolas Billon’s Butcher is a smart, heavy political drama that taps into the pulse of the world.

This review is based off a preview performance.

Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of Nicolas Billon’s Butcher runs at the Martha Cohen Theatre (EPCOR Centre) from Oct 14 – November 1, 2014.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.atplive.com/2014-2015-Season/Butcher/index.html

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