Can a play be too entertaining?
Butcher, a new stage thriller from Nicolas Billon, opened at Alberta Theatre Projects on the same day it was published by Coach House Books in a handsome edition with a foreword by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour.
In Billon's play, a victim confronts the perpetrator of a war crime in a Toronto police station, and Arbour, former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, distills the themes in her introduction: "Where can victims find peace if justice is elusive? Can offenders find closure if punishment is not extended to them?"
Tough questions, but instead I left opening night with the one asked at the top of this review: Is it wrong to pen a gripping nail-biter about torture and genocide and civil war?
Butcher opens with a mystery: Inspector Lamb (Eric Nyland) is working the Christmas Eve shift when an old man named Josef (John Koensgen) is left on the station's doorstep – drugged, wearing a Santa cap and with a butcher's hook hanging around his neck.
Impaled on the end of the hook is the business card of a lawyer named Hamilton Barnes with the words "arrest me" on it. Barnes (Andrew Musselman) has been summoned into the police station at 3 a.m. to explain his relationship to the mysterious man, who only speaks Lavinian (a Slavic-sounding language invented by two University of Toronto linguists for the play).
Also on the way is a translator named Elena (Michelle Monteith), who I'm hesitant to say anything else about.
Indeed, it's difficult to describe the plot any further, either, because the twists and turns start early and allegiances and aliases are switched as often over the course of this 90-minute play as they might be in a particularly torturous season of 24.
This one spoiler seems justified, however: Josef turns out to be "the Butcher," a notorious war criminal who was in charge of a concentration camp in the Balkan country of Lavinia. He's wanted by Interpol and also by a group of survivors known as the Fjurioji – or the Furies.
While the fictional country and its avengers' names bring to mind Shakespeare and Aeschylus, Butcher's action seems equally inspired by the Saw torture-porn movie franchise, with Billon introducing a new variation on Chekhov's gun: A butcher hook introduced in the first act must absolutely be used by the fourth.
Onstage violence is not the easiest to pull off, but director Weyni Mengesha bridges hyper-real scenes with stylized, slow-motion interludes – and she and her committed cast do an effective job of making the audience squirm and gasp out loud.
Does Butcher do its subject matter justice? Once the adrenalin rush dies off, you may realize that Billon's play has more depth and subtlety than it initially appears – and that the medium of the thriller is part of its message.
Billon, best known for his relatively mild-mannered monologue plays Iceland and Greenland, has not conjured up the Lavinian language merely to engage his Tolkienian impulses or to avoid offence.
Language and difficulties in translation are recurring themes in Butcher – highlighted by a running gag about Inspector Lamb mixing up his Latin and Greek. (The play itself mixes up the two: Lavinia gets its name from a character born of Roman mythology and later borrowed by Shakespeare, and the Furies get theirs from the beings who chase Orestes for the murder of his mother in The Oresteia.)
When Josef is compelled to confess his worst crime, he does so in Lavinian – and the audience can only guess at what he did based on the horrified reactions of other characters. Billon has crafted a compelling dramatic metaphor here – those of us blessed to have be raised in peace can only grasp at the edges of understanding when it comes to war crimes.
Likewise, Billon suggests that the civilized language we speak surrounding war crimes – words such as "closure" and "justice" that Arbour uses in her foreword – can sound meaningless to people who have lived through violence. Indeed, violence might be the only language that they can speak back.
That's not to say that Billon endorses the idea of vengeance over justice. But by crafting Butcher as a thriller, he puts the audience in a bloody mind – and we root for righteous revenge until it goes too far.
So, no: Butcher is not too entertaining, but it is dangerously so. The thrills in the play distinguish it from worthier plays that seek to illuminate human darkness, but don't expose us to the human instincts that lead to it.
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On opening night of Butcher at Alberta Theatre Projects, only two audience members understood every line of dialogue in the play: Christina E. Kramer and Dragana Obradovic, professors in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto and inventors of the Lavinian language.
Kramer and Obradovic created Lavinian at the request of playwright Nicolas Billon for use in his thriller about the survivors of a fictional Balkan civil war.
"From the very beginning, Nicolas did not want this play to be about a particular conflict," Kramer explained the next day, sitting in the sun at the Olympic Plaza with Obradovic. "And yet he wanted it anchored in a real situation."
When Billon first approached Kramer, she had a clear idea of how to create a language both specific and generic that would help him achieve his artistic aims. From the dialect continuum that stretches down the Balkan peninsula, she would take the sentence structure from the eastern-most dialect and the sound system from the northern-most, and then mash them together.
It didn't work. Kramer felt her first-draft Lavinian sounded off for a country that had undergone a civil war. "It was like you wanted to do a drama about the Second World War but didn't want to use German, so you used Swedish," she said, her vowels and consonants signalling her own Connecticut roots.
With Obradovic, a colleague who's originally from Bosnia, Kramer then gave Lavinian another shot. First, they took the dialogue Billon had written and translated it into a mix of South Slavic dialects – borrowing from Slovenian, Bulgarian and Macedonian at will. Then, they manipulated the lines word by word – for instance, substituting consonant clusters, but keeping the roots the same.
This time, the linguists were pleased: Lavinian would sound believable to people who spoke a Slavic language, but alienating at the same time – a bit like listening to the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky with English-tuned ears.
"We had to place people, but not really place people," said Kramer. "Maybe place, and then displace them," Obradovic clarified.
Butcher's opening was the first time the two Toronto-based linguists heard anyone other than themselves speak their made-up language. "It was fun hearing Lavinian with different accents," said Kramer.
"And hearing it for the first time in a man's voice," said Obradovic.
Added Kramer: "It was touching."