Chicago Theater Review: THE BUTCHER OF BARABOO (A Red Orchid Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on April 12, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Along with cutting meat for a living, Valerie, the butcher in Marisa Wegrzyn’s impressive The Butcher of Baraboo, is a middle-aged woman who is the center of an over-the-top dysfunctional family that takes the audience on a funny, disturbing, sometimes harrowing ride at A Red Orchid Theater. Beneath their commonplace Midwestern exterior, they are a creepy bunch and all seem to be guarding sinister family secrets.

Living with Valerie inside her Baraboo, Wisconsin home is her 30-year old unmarried daughter Midge, a town pharmacist who deals drugs to local teen-agers. Stopping in from time to time is the town sheriff Gail, Valerie’s sister-in-law and Midge’s aunt.

During a freezing February week, the sour Gail visits Valerie, whose husband Frank mysteriously disappeared a year ago. Gail would love to pin Frank’s disappearance as an act of foul play perpetrated by Valerie, but the crafty playwright quickly turns the tables: maybe Midge was responsible for Frank’s vanishment – or maybe Frank just left. Valerie’s brother-in-law Donal and his timid wife Sevenly have moved in next door; once they arrive in the butcher’s kitchen, their seemingly happy marriage is tested, and marital tensions percolate beneath the surface (there are even hints of a past illicit sexual dalliance between Donal and Valerie).

To underscore the atmosphere of menace, Valerie keeps brandishing the meat cleaver that’s a key tool of her butcher trade while Gail periodically waves her police pistol recklessly at everyone on stage. Audiences are conditioned to expect that any lethal weapon brought on stage in a play eventually will be used, and that can make a viewer extremely edgy. It’s especially hard to take one’s eyes off that cleaver, and the utensil finally does take center stage in a scene that had spectators ready to hide under their seats.

Wegrzyn injects plenty of black humor into her narrative, notably a moment involving a gallon of blood and a bowl of breakfast cereal that is one of the great gross-out scenes I’ve seen in a local theater in years. But most of the comedy comes from the contrast between the outward ordinariness of the characters matched with the bizarre plot. The playwright continuously ratchets up the tension, dropping ambiguous hints of danger ahead that stir the audience’s sense of unease, leading to the ferocious climax. By the final blackout, key questions get answered as with every good mystery, but the unexpected twists that occur along the way would have won the approval of Agatha Christie.

This isn’t an easy-going fun play, for it grabs the audience by the throat from first moment to last. Much of the credit for this wickedly delightful pressure goes to the taut, subtle directing by Shade Murray. The cast is exemplary, led by Kirsten Fitzgerald in another of her inimitable intimidating female performances as the cleaver swinger, Valerie. Natalie West is a hoot as the eccentric town sheriff Gail, and Missi Davis is spot-on as the rebellious Midge, a young woman whose stony exterior conceals some very deep emotional waters, including a possible lesbian attraction to Sevenly. HB Ward is fine as Donal, superficially the most normal character in the play but roiled with his own emotional pressures. Lara Phillips manages to make Sevenly kooky, pathetic, or dangerously desperate as the dramatic moment demands.

Set designer Grant Sabin created a splendid lower-middle-class Midwestern domestic interior that fits perfectly within the intimate playing area. Melissa Torchia designed the costumes, Lee Fiskness the lighting, Joe Court the sound, and Linda Laake the properties.

The Butcher of Baraboo is too small for Broadway, but this production certainly validates its many regional theater appearances: it’s economical to stage with a single set and just five characters. The play will also appeal to viewers who enjoy their dramas flavored with both tension and laughs, building to a shocker finish (and based on the lengthy runs of Deathtrap and Mousetrap, who doesn’t?) I was delightfully uncomfortable for most of the play and ready to look away from the stage when the violence threatened to fling some major nastiness at us. But in the final reckoning this is one of the most entertaining shows of the season.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Butcher of Baraboo
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on May 20, 2012
for tickets, call 312.943.8722 or visit A Red Orchid

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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