Toward the end of “Slaughter City,” a sliced and diced cloud of muddled theater by Naomi Wallace, one of the play’s only comprehensible moments bubbles to the surface. A ghost of sausages past, with a meat grinder slung around his neck, appears before an abusive and condescending manager of a meatpacking plant with a handful of freshly picked blades of grass. The manager crawls up on his desk and starts chewing on the grass out of the ghost’s hand, then spins around to face the audience and unleashes a deeply felt “moo.”
This is clever, you understand, because the manager, played by Ben Evans ’05, is fond of asking his subordinates what the “mood” of the workers is on the “killing floor” — the main site of violence in the plant where the pigs and cows get hacked to pieces. So when the manager begins to live out his bovine fantasy and inquires about the “moo-oo” of the killing floor, it’s as if he, too, is an innocent victim of capitalist society and his own greed just as the animals and workers are. At least, that’s one conclusion to draw from the scene. After a brief blackout, the manager returns to his normal, offensive self, and the point is abandoned.
Directed by Emma Hellman-Mass ’04, “Slaughter City” is full of curious and sometimes unintelligible moments, punctuated by frequent blackouts, making for a a confounding evening with the Yale Dramat.
Though it is, ultimately, a pro-labor play, the show disproportionately focuses on the perverse sexuality of four meat packers in Slaughter City, U.S.A., and is defiantly devoid of details about the worker’s lives and arguments for organized labor. In their absence, it follows, the play’s purpose would be to present the visceral experience of the workers in peril. But because the logic of the play is so perplexing and disjunctive, because the play operates exclusively in the realm of the symbolic, and because past blends with present in murky ways, the result is far too cerebral for the viewer to experience much besides the playmaker’s pretension.
Four factory workers round out the cast. The first, Roach (Elisa Frazier ’04), is an African-American female firecracker. Maggot, played by Julie Lake ’05, is a white female worker who dreams of pick-up trucks and men, but who ultimately makes out with a woman. Cod (Claire Siebers ’07), an Irish transvestite scab, is a symbol of all unionized workers past, present, and future. And Brandon, a college student who can’t read, at one point kicks off his boots, rips off his shirt, and goes through the motions of making love with a piece of meat.
The laborers speak in epigrams and extended metaphors — about ice cream, a chicken dinner, or the ocean, to name a few. They cut and shred imaginary carcasses in an eerily undefined space, framed only by hanging meat and a web of blood-colored cloth. They interact with each other–at least on the surface–and eventually they do strike, but that’s not the point. The problem is it’s unclear what the real point is, or if Hellman-Mass and her cast have any idea what they’re trying to communicate, aside from the fact that it’s exhausting and dangerous to work in the factory, life-threatening to stop, and fun to perform impenetrably deep theater.
Still, there’s something fascinating about that which we don’t understand. Celebrated artists have built careers on creating nonsense and passing it off as profundity. “Slaughter City” succeeds in making two and a half hours pass quickly. But even if you appreciate the set’s artistic design — the web of blood and meat, the manager’s office sitting below stage-level — the limited color palate of reds, pinks, and whites, and the plethora of ideas blown up like balloons and then released before being tied, you may still find the play to be a hollow experience.
What can we make of the moment when the ghost of sausages past (Andrew Levine ’04) opines, “sometimes history isn’t ready for you,” and douses the stage with a pocketful of white powder? Or when Roach kisses Brandon around a large carving knife she holds in her teeth, later to exclaim: “That’s how I like my Tarzan — on his knees”? And why does a textile worker spend 95 percent of the play in darkness atop scaffolding on stage left and then conclude the play with a monologue about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911? There are ideas lurking here, but does anyone know what to do with them?
There’s a tendency to pity well-intentioned actors in situations like this, who have an impenetrable script working against them and their audience, much as you would pity the workers they portray. But sometimes it’s more fun to play a part than to watch the performance, and “Slaughter City” feels like one of these cases.
People who enjoy being tipped on their ears by the theater without payoff at the end will enjoy the fragmented scenes, violently erotic imagery and contradictory characters. But those who are not fulfilled by recklessly obtuse theater lacking of a consistent style will not.
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