Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
American playwright, university professor, and social activist Naomi Wallace creates in her Slaughter City a play that rips open the doors of one of the more gruesome workplaces to reveal the injustice, the suffering, and the inequalities residing there every day while also showing the friendships, humor, and sexual attractions that somehow exist in a setting full of stench, guts, and blood. As part of its "Theater Takes a Stand" summer offerings, Stanford Repertory Theater presents Naomi Wallace's mixture of allegory, realism, and fantasy presented in rich, graphic, raw, and erotic language, song, and choreography.
Two life-long girlfriends now in their thirties, Roach and Maggot, endure conditions most people could hardly imagine as they rip, slice, and cut their way through another day. They are joined on the work-line by a hunky, cocky college guy, Brandon, who is attracted to the older Roach but has trouble getting her serious attention. The three are big supporters of the local union and are angered by the sudden appearance of a hated scab worker, Cod. But diminutive, mysterious Cod begins to agitate for their rights as workers and to advocate for unrest and striking for higher wages and better conditions. All the time, Cod also eerily cites what sound like first-hand, eyewitness stories about labor unrest and workers' slaughters in factory and mine disasters of the past century. Maggot's attraction to Cod grows just as Roach begins to warm up to Brandon; but the sporadic flirting and courting that at times is both sweet in its innocence and bare in its sudden eroticism is also surrounded in aspects of weirdness, secrets, and even other-worldliness.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong brings to Roach a fascinating mixture of thick-skinned, take-charge moxy combined with moments of reflection, vulnerability, and even femininity. From her often-foul mouth also come some of the play's most poetic and philosophical utterances, helping portray what life in the slaughterhouse has done to her. She admits to Maggot, "When I was a kid, I couldn't sleep because I thought about death ... Now I think about it the way I think about a bowl of cereal: I can take it or leave it." When she and Maggot are openly harassed by the factory manager, Ms. Mbele-Mbong provides one of the play's most poignant, sad, and inspiring moments as she submits to his demands while retaining her dignity and humanity as best she can against his humiliating taunts.
Maggot also has been hardened by the tough life handed her and the struggle just to make ends meet. Nora Tjossem allows us to see bits of the scars left in her soul by years of horrible working conditions, but at the same time to feel the spark she has retained that comes out in harsh language, spunky moves, and a bit of devilish humor. As she flirts at first coyly and then more openly with the illusive Cod, her Maggot brightens in hope at any sign of reciprocation and tightens in determination to win a first kiss.
Fiona Maguire's Cod is an anomaly to his fellow workers, suddenly appearing from nowhere and never quite fitting in as just another guy in the work gang. Each time he is asked how he got there, he dodges clarity by saying, "I didn't choose this place ... It chose me." We as audience so begin to get clues about Cod that lead to a climactic revelation and a capstone to the mythical part of this story otherwise seeping in hard realism. Ms. Maguire skillfully balances portraying an agitator who has arrived to create change for the better and an outsider who brings an air of impending disaster that he is somehow going to instigate. Her Cod also succumbs with increasing looks of being smitten to joining in the love story that Maggot is trying to write.
From his first slash of an imaginary knife, there is something particularly bold and reckless about tall, handsome Brandon that makes it impossible not to focus on him whenever he enters a scene. Louis McWilliams moves with a cocksure confidence bordering on bullying, but his Brandon also has a soft side showing surprising introspection and elegance not expected of the stereotyped factory worker. The traumas he faces as the scenes progress are enacted with excruciating energy and exactness.
Three other characters intersect the lives of these line workers in various ways. Dorian Lockett plays the African-American line supervisor Tuck, who walks a fine line between being tough boss and sympathetic witness to the abuses of his employees and between being loyal employee and target of derision by a heartless boss. Thomas Freeland is the plant manager Baquin, who comes across at times a bit clownish with sudden full-body turns as he walks across the factory floor, with bouts of trying to get employees to exercise, and a bounciness and demeanor that just do not quite seem to fit his otherwise mean, heartless self. Clearly, the playwright, director, and actor have a combined bit of biting parody in mind. The effect only partly works in the context of the rest of the production.
Most mysterious of all is Austin Caldwell as the Sausage Man, a queer character who walks around with sausages hanging from his neck, always turning an old-fashioned, hand-cranked meat grinder that might have been found in a kitchen of the last century. This quirky guy has a connection and a control of Cod that links him to a string of past labor unrest events, and the two clearly have a deadly, symbiotic relationship whose nature becomes clearer as the evening progresses.
Alex Johnson has directed this mostly fine cast in ways to underscore symbolically and pointedly the dire conditions that America's blue-collar workers must endure for not much reward and often much punishmentphysical, psychological, and dignity-wise. However, there are aspects of the script and the direction that keep the play from fully hitting its intended target. Frequent start-stop scenes are too often puzzlingly disconnected. Those same scenes repeatedly build almost (but not quite) to a climax and/or resolution and then abruptly end, which left me scratching my head. The characters come and go in such short segments that developing real empathy and understanding for them beyond their just being abused workers is difficult to do. Some scene events do not make a lot of sense (like a scene where Roach has Brandon put on her dress without much really happening to explain why and to what end). And while the play's finale is dramatic and somewhat explains who Cod is, the arc of the main story about Roach and Maggot is left hanging in mid-air.
In the end, I left with some memories of moving moments of Stanford Repertory's Slaughter City but also with overall dissatisfaction with the manipulations of its many fragmented scenes. And, while I know the loud whistle is probably utilized to sensitize us to how bells, buzzards, and alarms can control every move of many blue-collar workers, the whistle in this play became a real punishment for me as an audience member, especially since I unfortunately sat on the right, lower side of the small arena, too near the enthusiastic blower.
Slaughter City continues through August 7, 2016, at Nitery Theater, 515 Lasuen, Stanford, CA. Slaughter City is part of Stanford Repertory Theater's 2016 Summer Festival: Theater Takes a Stand. Next on stage will be Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty (August 11-21), with a related, free Monday night film series occurring through August 15. Information and tickets are available at stanfordreptheater.com or by calling 650-725-5838 and leaving a message.