It’s been said before, I know, but the effectiveness of art often hangs on one’s chosen medium; each has its strengths and weaknesses that need to be recognized in order the create within those realms properly. Theatre’s strengths often come with discussions of the ephemeral and physical reality of the piece, the idea that you could reach out and actually touch what’s there. This proximity can be breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and visceral. Seeing a man struck onstage feels much more real and life-threatening than it does in film, and that near-reality is what the best productions grab a hold of. As such, many of my favorite productions are the kinds of work that couldn’t translate into other artistic media, at least not without losing a vital element of what makes them great.
Set in West Virginia in 1972, Butcher Holler Here We Come by Casey Wimpee chronicles the plight of five coal miners as they are trapped underground after an explosion causes a cave-in. With no means of contacting the surface or clear route to freedom, the men use faith, folklore, drugs, and any other means available to fuel their sanity and survival as they seek freedom.
Staged in the First Street Studio, Butcher Holler caught my eye immediately upon entering the venue by arranging the audience seats in a close manner leaving little room for the actors, and having all of the dance studio’s mirrors and windows blocked off. What I initially assumed was simply a means to block out distracting reflections was in actuality a means to plunge the studio in complete darkness. Taking place within a caved-in coal mine, the production is performed without lighting save for the small collection of small LED headlamps worn by the actors. The effect is immediately apparent as the prologue utilizes the darkness to create a claustrophobic atmosphere amidst the shouts and crashes of the mine (and it should be stated at this time that if you are one who is made uncomfortable in complete darkness then this production will try your nerves). Similarly, the audience seating was arranged as such to give the actors a full space to immerse themselves within the audience. More than once I was caught off guard by the voice of an actor I did not hear approach from behind. Ultimately it establishes a very visceral, endless vibe that aids in connection between the men as they communicate through their lamps as well as the isolation of their situation in moments when only one miner has their light on. It’s incredibly effective lighting and staging with startlingly few pieces used to create the effect.
As a joint venture between the local Theatre Synesthesia and Aztec Economy, a Brooklyn-based art collective, the cast of local and out-of-town actors rotates throughout its four-week run. The characters of Henry “Hiccup” and Jet Delahunt are always played by Isaac Byrne and Cole Wimpee respectively, but the rest of the cast comes in and out each week sometimes with the same actors playing different roles. I respect the fluidity but it’s also a shame. For example, Adam Belvo (Keith “K-Bus” Busby) was one of my favorite performers in the show, but he only performed for the first weekend. However, his replacement for two weekends, Michael Mason, gave a haunting performance as Muskie Pope which I certainly see filling the role of K-Bus who, when played by Belvo, was looked genuinely sinister and spine-chilling as he sat at the far end of the stage glaring at the scene, only his face illuminated by his light. There’s a shared characteristic between all of the characters in that it’s difficult to tell who’s on the level and who is losing their mind amidst the lack of food, oxygen, and hope. Each plays the scenario differently, but there’s enough to differentiate them via their motivations and coping mechanisms that keeps each one interesting. Ultimately though there was not a single bad performance given. Casey Wimpee’s dialogue showcases a clear familiarity with the setting’s vernacular that allows all five men to speak similarly without sounding like the same character (an easy trap to fall into). And considering that the extreme lack of visuals forces the audience to focus more on the voices and dialogue of the case this is all the more impressive.
I have great respect for any piece of art that’s able to pare down and remove any extraneous details until the end result is as sleek and streamlined as possible, and Butcher Holler clearly achieves that. Even though it is clearly stated in the program that this is not based on a true story, the physical and tonal darkness behind the play push a visceral reality through a veil of chilling fiction to feel at once wildly fantastical and disturbingly real. I’ve spoken before on the importance of one choosing the proper medium for each of their artistic endeavors, and this is a prime example of how to choose correctly. Butcher Holler Here We Come is the kind of work that was clearly made for the theatre. It wouldn’t work nearly as well in any other medium, and for that I salute it. Admittedly this is my first exposure to Theatre Synesthesia and Aztec Economy, but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for both groups in the future.
Butcher Holler Here We Come continues playing at First Street Studio every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at 8pm until June 10th.