By Patricia Morris Buckley
“The Butcher of Baraboo” is probably the perfect comedy for these bleak times. It’s funny. It’s dark. But as a murder mystery, it doesn’t amount to much. In fact, it’s the nutritional equivalent of a dark chocolate ice cream sundae: Delicious to eat, but not that satisfying in the long run — and not very good for you either.
I have to admit there were a few times that I laughed so hard that I almost cried. Lines about squirrel bombs (real squirrels) and blood on breakfast cereal (probably not real blood, but funny nonetheless) were outrageous and shocking — an enjoyable combination. The problem is that the play never resolves the mystery or any of the character issues. It’s as if playwright Marisa Wegrzyn glibly wrote a ton of great punchlines, then tried to piece them together in a story. In the end, we just aren’t that invested in “who done it.”
“The Butcher of Baraboo” tells the story of an extended family dealing with the disappearance of Frank. Frank’s wife, Valerie, is a butcher and the town thinks she chopped him up and hid the pieces. Even Valerie’s adult daughter, Midge, isn’t that sure. Of course, Midge can’t exactly call her mother’s kettle black because she’s a pharmacist who deals at the local junior high. Plus, at 32, she’s still living at home.
Officer Gail is Frank’s sister and she believes that Valerie is probably guilty. Plus, she’s pretty sure her husband is cheating on her, which leads to a very funny suicide scene (now that’s dark humor). Frank’s brother, Donal, and his young, chipper wife Sevenly, have moved in next door to Valerie and there’s something not quite right with them either.
This family isn’t just dysfunctional, it’s certifiable and possibly criminal. What makes them interesting isn’t just their funny quips, but the actors playing them. Linda Libby plays Valerie with a heavy hand, but keeps the character from being too much of a heavy. Her job is to keep us guessing about the real mystery, which is where the play ultimately fails us.
Wendy Waddell and DeAnna Driscoll manage to steal the show. Waddell’s Midge is dark, twisted and proud of it. Her deadpan stare is hysterical. Driscoll’s manic Gail, who talks to her gun and boasts the only real Minnesotan accent, is — well, there is no other word for it — a hoot.
Jennifer Eve Thorn’s Sevenly is a slow revelation as the goodie-two-shoes character finally reaches the end of her rope and proves that she belongs in this loony tunes family. The only weak link is Don Evans as Donal. While he can handle a punchline, Evans’ stilted line readings are awkward and unbelievable. Or maybe it’s just that he’s playing a stereotypical Christian, which can only be used for so many laughs.
Kudos to Amy Chini and Esther Emery for the flexible set of an entryway, kitchen and hallway, all complete with homey touches (i.e. fridge magnets, family pictures and a 20-year-old toaster oven). We’re even treated to the smell of coffee being made. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes are more of a success on some characters than others, as her choices tend to be a bit obvious.
Co-directors Chelsea Whitmore and Delicia Turner Sonnenburg do a great job of putting up smoke screens so that we don’t see the play is a fragile house of cards. As long as we focus of the hilarious lines and quirky dark characters, we can’t help have a great time with the show. It’s delicious, if not satisfying in the long run, and even more fun than a ice cream sundae.
“The Butcher of Baraboo”
When: Through June 28; showtimes, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Moxie Theatre at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego
Info: (858) 598-7620
Patricia Morris Buckley has been reviewing the arts in San Diego for 25 years.