The line between justice and revenge isn’t as always defined or easy to follow as we’d like. Who’s to have the final say in what is acceptable and unacceptable when righting a wrong? And when the justice system we hold in such high regard fails us, who’s to deny anyone the opportunity for retribution?
Playwright Nicolas Billion raises these compelling questions and more in his suspenseful thriller, Butcher, that opened last week at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
It begins on Christmas Eve, an ideal night for a heinous mystery to unfold.
A fidgety elderly man named Josef Džibrilovo (John Koensgen) sits center stage in a khaki military uniform and Santa hat. He was left at the Toronto police station in the middle of the night, an unwelcome surprise for Detective Lamb (Sean Devine), the on-duty officer with a cache of bad dad jokes who’s just itching to get home to his two daughters in time for Christmas morning.
What could have been a simple case is made all the more complicated by the fact Josef only speaks Lavinian, a fictional language vaguely akin to an Eastern European dialect (created specifically for the show by University of Toronto professors Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradovic) and a butcher’s hook around his neck with a business card impaled on it. Cue Hamilton Barnes (Jonathan Koensgen), a British intellectual property lawyer who couldn’t be more removed from the situation at hand as he’s summoned to the station at 3:00 am. We soon find out we’re waiting for a fourth guest to the party: Elena (Samantha Madely), a no-nonsense nurse who’s been called in to translate Lavinian.
A fear-stricken Elena recognizes Josef’s uniform immediately and accuses him of being an international war criminal who mercilessly ran a concentration camp and was known under the moniker: “the Butcher”. If he is who she thinks he is, Josef’s not only wanted by Interpol but is being hunted by a group of revenge-seeking Lavinian survivors known as the Furies.
This is where I leave your imaginations to roam because to go any deeper into the description of the plot would ruin the climactic build up the cast work so hard to conceal. The play is wrought with twists and turns and just when you think you know what’s coming next, you’re wrong.
Starting off light hearted and humourous, the cast work to piece together who this mysterious man is. In an instant, the mood shifts and the play takes a darker turn, replacing laughter with baited breath. Such a politically-charged, violent play is rarely seen in such an intimate stage setting, creating the illusion that you might be watching a TV crime drama instead.
The actors worked effortlessly together, their chemistry palpable as everyone fully embodied their complex characters, adding truth to the statement that no one is really who they seem to be.
The unmistakable kinship between Josef and Hamilton was heart-wrenchingly obvious on stage and it was only after the performance that I came to find they are father/son acting duo.
John Koensgen’s take on Josef was undeniably convincing, despite none of his lines being in English! He masterfully made the fictitious language his own, making the audience buy into the authenticity of Lavinia.
Playing Hamilton Barnes, Jonathan Koensgen brought just the right mix of intellectual aloofness and painful desperation to his character.
Composer and sound designer, Keith Thomas, and lighting designer, Darryl Bennett, deserve a kudos for the artistic emphasis they showcased during the few dramatically violent slow motion scenes. Roger Schultz’s set was by far the most elaborate and largest backdrop that I’ve seen at the GCTC thus far.
Directed by Eric Coates, the performance was impressively extended for an additional seven days before opening night.
Butcher plays the Great Canadian Theatre Company through to March 20, 2016. For a performance schedule or to buy tickets, click here.