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Theater Review: The Butcher of Baraboo Doesn't Quite Make the Cut

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The Butcher of Baraboo with Nina Sallinen, Carl J. Johnson, Jenny Kern, Janet Chamberlain and Rebecca Jordan (on floor). | Photo: Chris Goss.


The Butcher of Baraboo with Nina Sallinen, Carl J. Johnson, Jenny Kern, Janet Chamberlain and Rebecca Jordan (on floor). | Photo: Chris Goss.
The Road Theatre Company, beginning its 20th season, has been terrific for a long time, a conglomeration of artists that has provided L.A. with shows of excellence and ambition, from the twisty treats of Ouroboros and Bunbury to the distinctive and dissimilar pleasures of Napoli Milionaria and The Bird and Mr. Banks. What all of these productions had in common was a strong play to begin with, but unfortunately Marisa Wegrzyn’s The Butcher of Baraboo is very uneven. A great cast brings the characters to life, and there are moments and scenes that work, but overall the writing is unconvincing and the story ultimately adds up to little.

In the small Wisconsin town of Baraboo, Valerie (Janet Chamberlain) makes her living as a butcher. She provides free cuts of choice meat for her police officer sister-in-law Gail (Rebecca Jordan), even though the two women don’t really like each other. Valerie’s 31-year-old daughter Midge (Nina Sallinen) still lives at home and works as a pharmacist, selling drugs to local high school kids on the side. The great mystery of Valerie’s life was the disappearance of her husband one year ago, something she has tried to move past. The arrival of her brother-in-law Donal (Carl J. Johnson)—the man she liked better than her husband—and his wife Sevenly (Jenny Kern), however, has brought the mystery back to life, and the butcher’s meat cleaver is about to get sharpened.

One fault of the play is that Valerie’s motivations are unnecessarily murky, leading to a confrontation in the second act that seems almost absurdly harsh. Chamberlain delivers a performance of wry humor and underlying menace, but it’s in spite of the loosely defined role. Jordan has a field day as the bullying Gail, particularly in a scene where she samples crystal meth for the first time, and Johnson is adept as a family man whose ethics are quite malleable. Sallinen manages to make Midge both rudely funny and genuinely touching, despite being stuck with character motivations and actions that are all over the map. Kern gives the best and most believable performance as Sevenly, a mixture of sweetness and desperation that demonstrates the true cost of the games the other characters are playing.

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Mark St. Amant’s direction is professional and the pacing is fine, but it’s in service of a flawed play. Wegrzyn’s dialogue is often stilted (“You thought we were conversing on some other matter, sure, sure.”), a couple of the characters don’t ring true, and the payoff is simultaneously overblown and anticlimactic. Jeff McLaughlin’s country home set is detailed to the degree that you could probably live in it, and Scooter Pietsch’s original music creates an agreeable “Wisconsin noir” vibe.

The Butcher of Baraboo
Road Theatre Company
Lankershim Arts Center
5108 N. Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood
Runs Th.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm thru Dec. 11
Tickets $24