Review: The Butcher of Baraboo is a bloody good time

Here’s this week’s second blog-only review—Street Corner Arts’ production of The Butcher of Baraboo.

Street Corner Arts has been making a name for itself in recent years as an energetic company focusing on witty, complicated texts that put actors front and center. The company’s latest production, Marisa Wegrzyn’s The Butcher of Baraboo (playing through December 21st at Hyde Park Theatere), is no different, except that it may just be the funniest of the lot.

The comedy in The Butcher of Baraboo, though, is of the blackest sort. What starts out in the tradition of a working class sitcom—the afghan on the couch is even similar to the one on Roseanne—quickly turns to talk of drugs, murder, and deep-seated family resentments. Every time you think Wegrzyn has thrown the wildest plot twist yet, it gets matched by an ever crazier turn just moments later.

What keeps this from devolving entirely into parody or horror—a fine line that the text constantly rides—is the amazing cast that director Carlo Lorenzo Garcia has assembled and guided. At the heart of the story is the mother and daughter pair of Valerie, played by Joy Cunningham, and Midge, played by Natalie Garcia. The two have delightful chemistry together, pulling off both tense, combative comedy as well as a few, rare scenes of maternal/filial love. Cunningham’s tense combination of guilelessness and quiet rage plays perfectly off of Garcia’s dry wit, and both of them pair hilariously with the seemingly more wholesome couple next door, Donal (Greg Gunther) and Sevenly (Kelsey Mazak).

Although the entire cast is quite good, there is one standout performance that deserves special mention. We’ve long known that Amber Quick is one of Austin’s finest performers, but in this production she proves she is also one of its funniest, in a manic performance as Gail, Valerie’s sister-in-law. What begins as a portrayal of small-town cop in the mode of Marge Gunderson from Fargo quickly goes off the rails into a totally manic breakdown. Gail nevertheless remains sympathetic throughout thanks to Quick’s nuanced performance, and her acute knowledge of when to go over-the-top and when to pull back.

Though the performances and the text are at the heart of The Butcher of Baraboo, Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and his design team do a superb job creating a space in which those actors can let loose. His and Zac Thomas’ ultra-realistic set, with a kitchen and living room bleeding over into the audience, puts viewers inside of Valerie and Midge’s house, evocatively lit by Alison Marie Lewis. Aaron Flynn’s costumes, in the meantime, serve as excellent visual shorthand to evoke each character’s state of mind, melding perfectly with the performances.

The Butcher of Baraboo is not only one of the funniest shows currently gracing the Austin stage, it also features one of the strongest ensembles, creating a pitch-black comedy that plumbs some pretty extreme depths in order to reveal universal truths about family, hypocrisy, and the many uses of a well-sharpened cleaver.

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