Butcher Shop theater fest is as wild, fun and confounding as ever
The annual Butcher Shop theater and music festival has slowly become one of Chico’s social and artistic events of the season. The experimental happenings were originally conceived in 1989 and produced for five years in a backyard by the founders of the Blue Room Theatre. After a 15-year break, during which its members went to school, started theaters and spread out across the country to become directors, lawyers, actors, writers and graphic artists, the core group began reassembling every Labor Day weekend at an outdoor venue in the orchards at The End of Normal.
In it’s seventh revival year, the Butcher Shop’s instigators (now under the umbrella of the Slow Theatre collective) show no signs of slowing down or slackening off artistic ambition and commitment to creating absurdist and socially conscious art. They also remain unconcerned with putting on anything more than original works of theater, much of which is only marginally comprehensible
Each year, the preshow accoutrements of the main event have grown, and this year the vendor/food truck/bar area was enlivened by some of Chico’s finest musical acts performing on a tiny stage. Sunday’s preshow lineup featured soulful singer-songwriter Lisa Valentine, ghostly goth-folk from Bunnymilk, and a crowd-pleasing collaboration between the legendary Jonathan Richman and Bunnymilk’s Kelly Brown and Lisa Marie, who provided call-and-response harmony vocals. Richman’s group’s Italian love song finale, featuring solos from a young accordionist named Eva, raised spirits among the crowd as well as on stage.
“There’s nothing as sweet as accordion music on a summer night,” Richman remarked as he led the band—which included locals Jake Sprecher on drums and Miles Montalbano on bass—through an extended ending.
Then darkness closed in on a lovely orchard sunset and the main stage lit up for the opening number by house band Dave the Butcher, featuring singers Elise Helms, Lizzie Latimer and John McKinley in a rousing exhortation of getting out into the weirdness and wildness of the theater of the night—which started immediately after with a green show by Slow Theatre’s Young Actors. The one-act was an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes”—presented as “The Stolen Bicycle”—a very mature dramatic piece about the way adult behavior affects young lives and vice versa.
Staying in the adult/child relationship vein, and tapping into 2015’s “Year of the Goat” theme, the first original piece of the night was Sarah Pape’s absurdist comedy “Little Animals.” It depicted Sher (Samantha Shaner) and Holly (Kate Corey), a same-sex farming couple who stumble into moral and mortal complications involving young “meat goats” being used as surrogate kids to see if the two women are ready for the real thing. Shaner’s skill and hilarity as a comic actress kept the audience rapt and laughing despite the fact that it was hard to make much sense of it all. A person near me whispered to a companion that she was “not able to understand any of this, but it’s funny.”
The night’s longest and most engaging piece, “The G.O.A.T. Project,” by founding Butcher Shop members Johnny Lancaster and Jesse Karch, used space colonization as a setting for placing four stereotypes—athlete, nihilist, social do-gooder, priest—outside of their metaphysical points of reference.
Beth Spencer’s “Tree Ring Circus” portrayed the family of the satyr god Pan (a perfectly cast John McKinley) trying to get him to “panic” humans into caring for their environment.
Closing the set of plays was “Travels in Lemuria,” by Dylan Latimer, Karch and Haley Hughes, which investigated alien goat intelligences living within Mount Shasta, or something like that. There were masks and music and ambiguous symbols and incomprehensible statements rising to a crescendo and nearly ecstatic, noncathartic release, followed by a palpable sense of relief that it was over and we could get back to socializing—seeing and being seen, freed from the compulsion to “understand.”