By Reed Canaan
In an ironic way, “Slaughter City” seems to unintentionally embrace the stereotype that theater is the domain of the elite and educated, not the working class. “Slaughter City” is part of Stanford Repertory Theater’s summer festival, Theater Takes a Stand, which celebrates the American labor movement. The story itself takes place inside a meat-packing factory, where blue collar workers spend their days bickering with each other while cutting into slabs of meat. At times, the play is discouraging to watch, and not just because of the injustices that the characters face as part of the struggle for workers’ rights. “Slaughter City” also features surrealist elements that go largely unexplained and a nonlinear narrative that leads to some particularly confusing moments.
Brandon (Louis McWilliams) succeeds in consistently bothering his coworkers, Maggot (Nora Tjossem) and Roach (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). When the three aren’t pitted against each other, they are harassing the strange new worker, Cod (Fiona Maguire), or being harassed by their boss Baquin (Thomas Freeland).
This play is unapologetically angry. Characters seem to raise their voices at each other in practically every scene. This uniformity dulls the sense of urgency or intense emotion that these moments are clearly intended to convey. In addition to the obvious focus on worker’s rights, racism and sexual assault are both addressed. That’s a huge range of serious issues, and in some moments it feels like the play is trying to do too much. There are very few instances of humor or even lighthearted conversation, which dulls the audience’s response to anger even further.
Scenes are presented as a series of vignettes, with their beginnings and endings punctuated by a sharp whistle. The speed and sheer number of scenes is engaging, but at times they feel more like different variations on a theme than a plot. Particularly confusing is the role that Cod and the charmingly sinister Sausage Man play in the production as a whole. It’s clear that the two of them are able to travel through time, moving from one labor movement conflict to another. This function seems superfluous, however, and results in extraneous confusing details. Cod is always radiating heat, for example, and repeatedly stammers when trying to remember which time period he exists in currently.
That’s not to say that the play was devoid of effective scenes or emotional moments. The friendship between Roach and Maggot seems genuine, and as frustrating as the narrative is to follow, the cast members clearly do their best to support both each other and the audience. Cast members who aren’t in a particular scene are seated on the edge of the stage, responsible for the sound effects. The use of props is minimal, so the audience’s primary focus is on the actors.
Ultimately, “Slaughter City” is telling an important story. Its methods are certainly unconventional, but that perhaps distracts from the central message that it is trying to communicate. All of the actors are earnest in their portrayals of complicated characters. It’s just hard to believe that the characters in “Slaughter City” would have enjoyed this play themselves.
Contact Reed Canaan at rcanaan ‘at’ stanford.edu.