The Coen Brothers meet Beth Henley in Marisa Wegrzyn’s The Butcher Of Baraboo, a quirky bit of Fargo crossed with Crimes Of The Heart, now getting its Los Angeles premiere at North Hollywood’s The Road Theater Company.

Directed with a real feel for Wegrzyn’s particular blend of humor, mystery, and mayhem by Mark St. Amant, The Butcher Of Baraboo stars Janet Chamberlain as Valerie, the titular meat cutter of the real life Wisconsin home to the Circus World Museum and the former winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus. Valerie’s husband Frank disappeared mysteriously on a frozen lake just a year ago, and though a memorial service was held for Frank (now that’s disappearing), town gossips’ tongues are still wagging that Valerie may have used her meat cleaver for something other than chopping beef.

We in the audience have already seen the power of Valerie’s meat-cleaving arm when she attacks the bag of Starbucks free-trade organic coffee that her daughter has dared to bring home. (“You know I only drink decaf!”) The butcher of Baraboo keeps a gallon jug of blood in her fridge, is prone to exclamations like “Sometimes I could kill her!,” and at one point threatens to throw acid in he sister-in-law’s face, none of which reassure us that Frank’s disappearance was merely that of a husband in need of a long, long walk.

Sharing digs with Valerie is her passive-agressive 32-year-old junior-pharmacist daughter Midge (Nina Sallinen), a dour young miss whose side job is selling “pharmaceuticals” to local middle school students, that is when she’s not exchanging murderous glances with Mom.

Since Valerie sees no need to keep her doors locked, unexpected visitors keep popping in, visitors like Gail (Rebecca Jordan), her nutcase of a policewoman sister-in-law and the Barabooite most suspicious of Valerie’s skill with a meat cleaver. Since Gail runs the local D.A.R.E. program, she sees nothing wrong with experimenting with crystal meth, the better to understand the dangers the drug poses to unsuspecting youngsters.

Also dropping by are Frank’s brother Donal (Carl J. Johnson) and his considerably younger wife Sevenly (Jenny Kern), recently returned to Baraboo from Provo, Utah, their six children in tow. (Sevenly’s name comes from being the seventh and last child in her family.)

Like Henley’s Southern sisters in Crimes Of The Heart, Wegrzyn’s women have their own queer little quirks. Valerie refers quaintly to her cleaver as her “cutlery,” Midge pours Pepsi on her breakfast when Mom is out of milk and substitutes jelly beans for bullets in Aunt Gail’s gun, Gail can’t seem to record over The Captain And Tennille’s Muskrat Love to leave behind a decent suicide note, and Sevenly reads children’s stories to chickens, skipping over the dull parts, because chickens don’t mind the stories’ not making sense. Like the Coen Brothers North Dakota characters, however, these Barabooites have accents more Upper Midwest than Mississippi and are prone to turns of phrases like Valerie’s “With Frank it was all hemming and hawing, “Ohhhhh… I don’t know. Maybe. Is it you’re making some is why you asked? I just, ohhhhh, I just don’t know.’” Get the picture?

Over the course of a couple of February days, it becomes clear that Valerie is not the only one with secrets. There’s Midge’s interest in Sevenly that seems to go beyond simple female bonding, Sevenly’s fear that she may be the next one in her family to perish from the seventh-child curse, and the possibility that Donal may be a good deal closer kin to Midge than merely her uncle.

Director St. Amant helmed last year’s award-winning The Bird And Mr. Banks, making him the ideal choice for The Butcher Of Baraboo, and though the current offering isn’t quite in that same league, it benefits from the qualities that make each Road Show a North Hollywood event—a superb cast and a design team to match.

Stepping into the role of Valerie with less than three weeks’ rehearsal, Chamberlain may not yet have attained the full power of her character’s sinisterness, but she’s definitely on the way there, giving glimpses of THE danger—and pain—hiding under Valerie’s seemingly placid exterior. Sallinen gives a delectably quirky performance which captures Midge’s anger, frustration, and secret longings, as well as being funny as all get-out. The enchanting Kern, LA Weekly Award nominated for her starring role in The Bird And Mrs. Banks, is perfectly cast as the play’s only genuinely good-hearted character, but she too digs deep to show the pain and fears beneath Sevenly’s girl-next-door sweetness. Johnson more than holds his own as the sole man amongst all these women. Finally there’s Jordan, stealing every scene she’s in as the unremittingly hyper Gail, a tour de force whirlwind of a performance that involves an outrageously funny crystal meth trip, a meal of blood-soaked Count Chocula, and an ill-fated suicide attempt.

Jeff McLaughlin’s superbly designed and appointed Wisconsin living room and kitchen has us walking right into the entry hall as we take our seats, snow falling outside the icy kitchen windows. Christie Wright’s lighting design and Scooter Pietsch’s original music set just the right sinister mood, and Mary Jane Miller’s costumes tell us volumes about the characters wearing them. David B. Marling’s sound design is a particular standout, from the incessant refrigerator buzz that annoys the heck out of Valerie to the distant sounds of trains passing in the late Wisconsin night. Fight coordinator TJ Marchbank has staged a terrific second act scuffle.

The Butcher Of Baraboo is produced by Hillary Six, and Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson are executive producers. Midge/Sevenly understudy Bettina Zacar is assistant director. Alexa Shoemaker is stage manager.

Road Theater fans will not be disappointed by the company’s latest production, the first of their twentieth season. Darkly hilarious and more than a tad off-the-wall, The Butcher Of Baraboo knows just how to swing her meat cleaver for maximum black-comedic effect.

The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
October 8, 2010

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