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John Koensgen plays a man dropped off at a Toronto police station with the words ‘Arrest me’ on a card impaled on a butcher’s hook.

4 out of 4 stars

Written by
Nicolas Billon
Directed by
Weyni Mengesha
Miranda Calderon, John Koensgen, Andrew Musselman and Tony Nappo
Panasonic Theatre

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, Paris's famous horror theatre, used to advertise that it had a physician on staff to tend to any audience members who fainted during a performance.

Perhaps the Panasonic Theatre might want to consider a similar policy (or publicity stunt) while Butcher is on stage. On the opening night of Canadian playwright Nicolas Billon's thriller, exiting audiences found a patron on a stretcher in the lobby and an ambulance waiting outside on Yonge Street.

Now, I can't say for certain what caused this woman sitting in row Q to pass out during Butcher – but there's plenty in Billon's unusually entertaining play about justice and genocide that is not for the faint of heart.

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In the early hours of Christmas Day, a drugged man in a general's uniform and a Santa hat (John Koensgen) is dropped off at a police station in Toronto. He has a butcher's hook around his neck with a business card impaled on it – the words "Arrest me" scrawled on its back in a Slavic language called Lavinian.

The card belongs to an intellectual-property lawyer named Hamilton (Andrew Musselman) – who, as the play begins, has just arrived at the station to be questioned by a detective named Lamb (Tony Nappo).

Hamilton knows no more than Lamb as to why his business card has been attached to this mysterious man – and, as they wait for a Lavinian translator named Elena (Miranda Calderon) to arrive and sort out the situation, the two pass the time by talking about sports such as hockey and UFC.

"Watching people hurt each other is not my idea of a good time," says Hamilton, who is from England and prefers the sport the British call football.

To relate any more of Butcher's plot is to spoil a series of twists and turns that are a good part of the play's appeal – but suffice it to say that if you feel similarly to Hamilton then you might want to skip this show, which seems equally inspired by The Oresteia and the Saw franchise.

I first reviewed Butcher in its world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2014 – and admired Billon's unusually visceral approach to dramatizing the question of whether justice can truly be found in the wake of war crimes.

While it's a thrilling play, it's not an unintelligent one: Indeed, Butcher's printed edition even features a foreword by Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

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What's on now at the Panasonic, produced by Why Not Theatre as part of the Off-Mirvish season, is an evolution of the same production that stunned Calgary 2-1/2 years ago and then played at the Theatre Centre last season.

The versatile director Weyni Mengesha, who has found a way of stylizing the violence that is chilling, is again at the helm, and Koensgen and Musselman are still in the cast, playing parts that they've now perfected.

Nappo, a reliable local actor, now enlivens the play as a Toronto cop who seems like an homage to those who populate George F. Walker's plays.

His constant joking puts Hamilton and the audience on edge as often as it actually elicits laughter. As Elena, Calderon fully commands attention from her arrival on stage with an off-kilter presence.

For all its effectively squirm-inducing moments, Butcher is also quite a nerdy play – with sly winks at Aeschylus and Shakespeare and television cop shows. Much of the dialogue is delivered in an entirely invented language that Christina E. Kramer and Dragana Obradovic, professors in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, created at Billon's behest.

The fact that Lavinia is an imaginary country is crucial, however, as it helps keep Billon's play from feeling too exploitative – as does his clever use of the Lavinian language to leave some elements of the horrors that took place there to our imagination.

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There are surely things in Billon's script that a critic could jump on, less in thrall to the plot on a second viewing – and there is surely an argument to be made that the form the playwright has chosen is not serious enough to tackle a serious subject.

If Canadian playwrights were inundating the stage with well-crafted thrillers, and Butcher weren't such an anomaly, it might even be worth making.

As it is, Butcher, with a gritty urban set by Yannik Larivee, is the first play I've seen that really fits well in the Panasonic – and, indeed, feels at home in the problematic playhouse originally built for the Blue Man Group. Full credit to sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne for finding a way to amplify the actors so we can hear them clearly, while maintaining an intimacy to the sound.

PS: The word from a Mirvish spokesperson is that the patron who fainted on opening was checked out by paramedics and "concluded there was nothing of concern that would warrant a hospital visit right then."

Also: "There was no indication her fainting has anything to do with the content of the show."

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