The Butcher Shop is more than just plays and music—it’s magic
The Butcher Shop, in a nutshell, is an annual two-day theater-and-music festival put on by a bunch of current and former artsy Chicoans. It’s a tradition dating back nearly 20 years to when its founders tore a hole in the side of the family garage one Labor Day to host the first event. It features a handful of theatrical productions punctuated with live music by super-group Dave the Butcher, and the whole affair is held in an almond orchard on the south end of town.
But, as I witnessed Saturday evening at the event’s 10th outing, subtitled Diabolus Americanus, some things defy simplified, nutshell descriptions. The Butcher Shop is in fact far more: a certifiable happening; an outstanding example of what a community can do together, with a bit of will and organization; a testament to the unifying power of art; and a splendid showcase of the talent Chico is blessed with.
This vision of The Butcher Shop’s true character started coming into focus as soon as I wheeled my bike onto the property on Estes Road. Within minutes, I’d seen a half-dozen friends and acquaintances, with even more familiar faces wandering about—bartenders, professors and neighbors of all ages, the whole range of Chico characters with which one comes into contact after spending any length of time in our fair city—all gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere to drink, eat and make merry together. Adult beverages were brought along or bought on site, children ran largely unsupervised around the grounds, and everyone conducted themselves gloriously without the oversight of a single policeman or uniformed security guard.
The first one-act play of the evening was a take on Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” The inclusion of Carver’s short story was a thoughtful move, as the late author spent time living in Paradise and studying at Chico State in the late 1950s. It was also a practical choice, as “Why Don’t You Dance?” centers around a drunk’s yard sale to rid himself of his worldly possessions after losing his wife and home, lending itself well to the outdoor venue.
The action kicked up a great deal for the second one-act, a Marx Brothers-, vaudeville-styled romp called “Dam It All Again!” Laden with satire, the story—written by Tom LaMere and Roger Montalbano—revolved around the efforts of a developer to cause a ruckus over the Chico farmers’ market to distract citizens from his plan to dam Big Chico Creek, flood Bidwell Park and build a casino. Helping him in this endeavor are a pair of hookers-turned-Indian-princess-and-nun, and a pair of out-of-town bums appointed to high-ranking city positions to cover up the malfeasance. “People of Chico, you are being duped!” ran a repeated line in the play.
“Malibu, 1953” also took inspiration from the headlines of the day, but this time on a national level. Ostensibly a send-up of a Cold War spy saga, it was actually an allegory about domestic surveillance taking place now, 50 years after the time in which it was set.
The Butcher Shop is more than a collection of one-acts, though. The music—which ran the gamut from the traditional spiritual “Sinnerman” to the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”—and theatrical performances were arranged to establish a rhythm to the whole night. The grand finale was the play, “Punvoramport, the Mycologist’s Handbook.” The piece was written by four Chicoans-turned-Brooklynites—Forrest Gillespie, Haley Hughes, Jesse Karch and Dylan Latimer—using a four-sided die to ensure the plot maintained an air of complete chaos, beginning with a man ranting as he wiped excrement on a window and ending with an old man screaming incoherently at what some audience members individually guessed were tortilla chips, pyramids or mountains overtaking him.
What the last act lacked in storyline, it more than made up for in spectacle of sound and vision. There was an almost supernatural vibe as the players acted out some sort of drug-trip-meets-pagan-ritual. Even the wind cooperated, kicking up at just the right moment to blow away the day’s remaining heat, lingering mosquitoes and any doubts that The Butcher Shop is anything short of a singular event that must be experienced firsthand to be understood and appreciated.