Review: Butcher (Why Not Theatre/Butcher’s Block)

Tony Nappo, Andrew Musselman, John Koensgen

Butcher is a “fascinating” dive into unanswerable questions, now on stage in Toronto

Must revenge be a never-ending cycle? Are revenge and justice mutually exclusive, or are they one and the same? What do you do to raise your voice in a world that is bored with suffering? The Theatre Centre, in a co-production with Why Not? Theatre and Butcher’s Block Collective, presents Nicholas Billon’s explosive play Butcher, a thrilling, taut and harrowing 80 minutes of theatre that raises these uneasy, unanswerable questions.

The show begins in a police station on Christmas Eve (well, early Christmas morning), complete with a sad, tiny tree blinking its wan tidings of cheer (nicely designed by Yannik Larivée). An elderly man has been dropped off at the station. He wears an unidentified military uniform and a Santa hat. He will only mumble one phrase in an obscure Eastern European language, so Inspector Lamb (Tony Nappo) is waiting for a translator. And, oh yes, when he arrived, a butcher’s hook was draped around his neck, piercing a business card with the name of a British IP lawyer on one side and “arrest me” on the other. Why? We’ll find out.

This is a play that has numerous twists and turns, and while some are more telegraphed than others, any seemingly contrived circumstances cleverly turn out to be part of the overall plan. (To say too much more would be unfair). This means that the script still manages to pull off surprise after surprise, along with a couple of whiplash-inducing emotional shifts.

The show is very funny and extraordinarily dark in equal measure; there is light repartee and deep psychological anguish. It also features a great deal of deeply disturbing, graphic violence, which is effectively stylized by director Weyni Mengesha, until one protracted scene where the audience is forced to look on, as if to prove to us, as one character says, that violence is a longer and more difficult process than we see in the movies.

Therefore, what we have here is almost a twisted Die Hard (police at Christmas in an eventual hostage situation), but one that is both action movie and serious meditation on genocide and reparations, where you’re not nearly as sure where your sympathies lie.

This is achieved in large part thanks to the stellar cast, all of whom defy our (and the play’s) initial attempt to define and stereotype them. Instead, no-one is exactly who they seem to be.

It’s fascinating watching each actor modulate persona and goal. Andrew Musselman is great as Hamilton Barnes, the stuffy, intellectual British lawyer who is forced to confront his own worldview. Michelle Monteith as Elena the translator projects steely resolve, and John Koensgen’s Josef Dzibrilovo conveys volumes without speaking English. The real standout, though, is Nappo’s Inspector Lamb, the blue-collar, UFC and hockey-loving cop who lets constant inappropriate jokes deflect any serious moment; his brash exterior gives way to terror, compassion, and then something else entirely.

While the violence will get the most attention, language is crucial in the play, whether it be issues of communication in translation, how much can be conveyed by the faces and reactions of the actors even when we don’t understand what is being confessed (in fact, part of the horror is that we so used to these stories that we can guess easily what terrible acts were perpetrated), or the idea that certain words are the purview of the privileged, and that we may not be able to communicate even when we’re speaking the same language.

The play opines that the most dangerous enemy to the never-ending, despairing howl of revenge is hope. In the end, like the light from the tiny Christmas tree, we get a sliver of it, and a striking tableau as we walk out into the night; hands shaking, suspicions confirmed, but questions unanswered.


  • Butcher plays at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West) until November 14th, 2015
  • Performances run: Thu.-Sat. October 29 – 31 at 8:00 PM, Sun. Nov 1 and 14 at 1:30 PM, Nov 3-4 (Tue.-Wed.), 7 (Sat.) , 11 (Wed.) and 13 (Fri.) at 8:30 PM, Nov 5-6 (Thu.-Fri), 10 (Tue.), 12 (Thu.) and 14 (Sat.) at 7:00 PM and Sun. Nov 8 at 3:00 PM
  • Tickets range from $17-30 plus service charges, and can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 416-538-0988.
  • This play contains mature themes and scenes of extreme violence. Not recommended for children.

Photo of Tony Nappo, Andrew Musselman and Josh Koensgen by Dahlia Katz