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Got tickets for the Theater Alliance’s latest? Don’t expect theater: Naomi Wallace’s Slaughter City is equal parts epic, polemic, poem, and testament, but only occasionally does it rise to the level of drama. But go, by all means, especially if you find a meaty mental challenge a satisfying alternative to a traditionally structured narrative. Wallace draws on influences as rich and varied as Bertholt Brecht, Upton Sinclair, and Tony Kushner, and what she does with her alternately gritty and hallucinatory story is as ambitious as anything those titans ever tried.
Ambitious enough, in fact, that theater writers have risked injury wrangling descriptive word-pairs around its ideas: London’s Guardian, for example, called it an “attempt to redefine political drama in terms of a feminist surrealism,” whatever that last bit means.
So what is this rough beast? It’s an exciting mess of a play about labor action, about the dehumanizing dynamics of capitalism, about the way the human spirit and human sexuality will, when stifled, find escape and expression in the strangest ways. It’s a marvelously unwieldy monument to both the resilience and the relative powerlessness of organized labor, an overstuffed documentary punctuated with flights of poetic fancy and magic realism, a history play concerned not just with the shameful landmarks of American industry’s past but also with the unforgivable realities of its present. And it is an occasionally unfocused but nonetheless passionate call to action: The inescapably symbiotic pairing of worker exploitation and worker action, Wallace argues, will doom our society to endless, circular repeats of the 20th century’s horrorsunless a radically different model can be found.
Set in a modern-day meatpacking plant, inspired by worker stories from a 1992 strike in a Kentucky facility very like the one it describes, Slaughter City gets down and dirty (bloody and gory, too) from the first scene: Three workers rehash a vile practical joke, trade sexualized insults, and sharpen both knives and tongues on a scaba man named Codwho’s just joined the line. In a mere page of dialogue, Wallace establishes a mood of brutal realismhaving already signaled, in a brief and hauntingly lyrical prologue, that reality isn’t the only territory she intends to occupy. Constantly, fearlessly, she marries the most fragile poetic language to the starkest of situations: “Your kiss is so cold, like an apple in the snow,” says a man standing ankle-deep in the mire of the kill floor.
From the start, too, director Jeremy Skidmore and his design team find an expressionist physical grammar for the earthiest of Wallace’s images: The workers wear bloodstained whites, strike punishing noises from the gridded steel platforms of Tony Cisek’s set, and wield long,
dangerous-looking knives that flash hypnotically under Dan Covey’s nightclub-industrial lights. But the carcasses they exhaust themselves disemboweling exist almost entirely in the imagination, in the spaces outlined by the rigid choreographic gestures with which the actors carve the air. Boots, blades, catwalks, and high-pressure hosesthe hardy artifacts of manufactureare viscerally real elements in this production; viscera and entrails and scraps of flesh, by contrast, are more poetically physicalized, red-soaked strips of cloth flung casually about to create the nauseating wet snap, snap, snap of discarded waste. In a play that accuses industry of viewing workers as little more than byproducts, it’s an apt and resonant juxtaposition of images.
Unfortunately, the show’s reach is so great that the resources of a small company may not be able to do it justice. Wallace moves, not always gracefully, between the realistic and the surreal, and her tone veers from the everyday to the epicCod quickly emerges as a kind of working-class elemental, an avatar of struggle who’s been present, along with another mysterious and metaphorical character, at the creation of more than one workplace tragedy. (And yet both of them are present also within the confines of the play’s particular slaughterhouse, influencing and commenting on the events that unfold there.) In many ways, Slaughter City is a kind of Angels in America for the AFL-CIO set, but it’s arguably less coherent than Kushner’s seven-hour gospel; an industrial-scale production may very well be a requirement if we’re to surrender to its sprawl.
Yet it’s a worthy effort that the Theater Alliance is presenting at the H Street Playhouse, and for every patron irritated by its shortcomings (and one gentleman was, quite vocally, at last Saturday’s intermission), there will be others moved by the obvious investment of its assembled forces. They will find something profoundly affecting in the anguished face and flat, defeated eyes of Jennifer Mendenhall’s deeply damaged character, something seductively graceful about Aubrey Deeker’s Cod, something simultaneously sinister and avuncular in the way Barry Abrams plays Deeker’s foil, the Sausage Man.
Appreciating these things, they may be inclined to overlook others: the relative blandness of Thembi Duncan’s performance, for instance, the inescapable fact of her youth (when the script says her character is 15 years older than the 22-year-old pursuing her), the merely tentative menace in Jay Dunn’s portrayal of her volatile would-be lover. These are but soft spots, though; Slaughter City’s real weaknesses lie in the play’s loose ends and vagaries, in the murky boundaries between what’s real and what’s fantastic in its narrative, and in the emphasis it places on a story twist that goes unexplained and unexplored once Wallace unknots it.
That last, like so much else, seems to be an artifact of the author’s preference for observation over analysis, for questions rather than answersassuming any such things exist. Those are fine qualities in a philosophy, in a poem, even in a play, if the playwright can marshal the questions and the observations into something with shape and momentum enough to stir us beyond the smallness of our lives. It’s what Brecht did, what Kushner does, and what Wallace could do if she tried a little harder: Slaughter City is a rattletrap steamroller, one that with a little screw-tightening might well leave audiences flattened in its wake. CP