Prime Cuts' exquisite carvery in "Butcher"

Vancouver premiere for Nicolas Billon's brain-teasing, gut-wrenching thriller @ Cultch

Extra-judicially interrogating the "enhanced" interrogator. Photo: Tim Matheson

‘Tis turducken season, once again.

This avian congeries – a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey – crops up at my neighbourhood grocer’s every year right around the two main feast days of Christian grace, Xmas and Easter.

And, right in time for the holiday, director Kevin McKendrick has assembled his new-fledged Prime Cuts Collective to bring a turducken of a script, playwright Nicolas Billon’s Butcher, to the Vancouver stage.

The show is aptly named, and so is the collective. It takes consummate cookery and carvery to craft a turducken. Also a whole array of shears, probes, prods and ligatures to pluck, declaw, debone, baste, gag and bind the poultry. All these tools come into play in the Prime Cuts production. Except they’re deployed on humans, rather than fowl, to graphically grisly effect.

A turducken, like a police thriller, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma; you never quite know just what sort of bird you’re being served. That’s ostensibly the dilemma of two allegedly clueless protagonists – a goofy police inspector (Darryl Shuttleworth) and a plummy British IP attorney (Noel Johansen) – as they ponder the gaunt, drugged, slumped form of an enigmatic “Sargent Santa” (Peter Anderson).

Their mystery guest has been purportedly dumped at the door of a Toronto cop shop at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, wearing only an unidentified military tunic, a conical red Christmas cap and, strung around his neck, a meat hook. The “Sargent” himself can shed no light on the conundrum; he speaks only some unidentified Slavic-sounding dialect.

The sole clue is the lawyer’s name card, impaled on the hook, with the words “Arrest Me” scrawled on the back in a language identified (by Google Translate) as Lavinian. Hence the inspector’s very apologetic pre-dawn summons of the attorney to the precinct and his call for a Lavinian interpreter (Lindsey Angell) from the police roster of volunteer translators.

Seemingly half the dialogue in this wordy play is conducted in Lavinian – a made-up language specially invented for Butcher by a pair of Toronto academics. Anderson, for one, never speaks a word of anything else. In a post-show “talkback” he relates how, to emote convincingly in Lavinian, he practiced to master intricacies of its sophisticated grammar, replete with subtle verb tense conjugations and distinctive case endings for subject versus object nouns.

Such distinctions matter; for those of us who don't know Lavinian, the blurring of past and present action, subjects and object players, victims and perps, is precisely what makes Billon’s thriller script work. And, as we come to learn, Lavinian fluency comes with a horrific back-story of civil war and genocide.

The characters’ ignorance, real or feigned, of this background drives their actions and motivations. But we're never quite sure who actually knows what. Billon turns the opacity of the Lavinian language into a kind of smokescreen. The characters use it to fake out the audience and lure each other into the most nightmarish deeds and revelations.

None of which will be revealed in any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that the whole story plays out as a psyops skirmish in an ongoing, interminable and viciously asymmetrical war.

Yet "symmetry" is just what every combatant so relentlessly pursues. Each remains hell-bent on what they call “justice” – an eye-for-an-eye balance of sadism that only ups the ante of the carnage.

Most of the play's action is verbal, under the unforgiving glare of cop shop fluorescent tubes. But now and then the 80-minute talkathon is punctuated by bursts of stylized violence, executed in slo-mo to the pulse of lighting designer Michael Hewitt’s lurid strobes.

The language and even the intermittent squibs of vaguely klezmer background music (by Keith Thomas) set an Eastern European tone. But there’s nothing peculiarly Slavonic about the human miseries explored here. Indeed, director McKendrick noted in the post-show talk, some of the more baroque cruelties incorporated into his Butcher came from torture accounts as far afield as Rwanda or Sri Lanka.

Nor can we, as North Americans claim any moral high ground – not when the “leader of the free world” has just tapped a blacklisted torturer to head his spy agency. Nor, for that matter, after the revelations of Canada's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

How, after all, can humans ever aspire to any sort of Reconciliation when we can’t even admit to the most basic bedrock of Truth? Butcher, in its final scene, holds out just the faintest glimmer of hope that we might get there somehow. But only through an almost super-human surrender of "symmetry," akin to a religious intuition of Grace.

So Happy Holy Days to you. Maybe treat yourself to a theatrical turducken at the Cultch. It’s rich festal fare, digestively challenging. It could make for a sleepless night or two. But a timely reminder of what Christmas and Easter – or, for that matter, Passover or Narooz – are all about.

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