The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie

Thirty-two years in two-and-a-half hours: Terry Hempleman and Emily Gunyou Halaas (foreground)
Michal Daniel

At the beginning of the second act of The Master Butchers Singing Club, the premiere of an adaptation by Marsha Norman of Louise Erdrich's 2003 novel of the same name, our heroine Delphine (Emily Gunyou Halaas) stands surrounded by the males in her life who would claim her affections: her husband, a child in her care, her besotted father, and the man she loves. It's a lovely, well-staged moment of considerable impact and symbolism.

And then it's gone, because there's a hell of a lot more story to tell—so much, in fact, that if we stop for consideration or contemplation, it feels as though a decade or so will pass without proper notice. And here's the paradox: This Francesca Zambello-directed production is sturdily paced, visually pleasing, and finely acted. Yet it passes by with such a broad scope and every-thread-included approach that it's ultimately difficult to find a handhold for our deeper emotions.

The action takes place over the course of 32 years beginning in 1922 in a town on the Great Plains. Delphine is coupled with Cyprian (Charlie Brady), a fine choice for her mate if she is inclined to overlook his homosexuality. Meanwhile she works for Fidelis (Lee Mark Nelson), a German immigrant butcher who is married to Eva (Katie Guentzel). Despite the fact that they are both spoken for, Delphine and Fidelis fall deeply in (for the time being) impossible-to-realize love for one another.

Sounds simple enough, except it isn't. We have sufficient subplots and the passing of the years to fill a good-sized novel (go figure), which allows Tracey Maloney to steal several scenes as a saucy mortician, and Terry Hempleman to garner many laughs as the town drunk with something very unsavory under his floorboards.

Throw in a mysterious wandering Native American (Shelia Tousey, with grim humor), a sheriff willing to warp the law if it will realize his desires (Maloney's Clarisse is fetching, but still), and Fidelis's horrid sister (Jennifer Blagen, doing stalwart work in a thankless role), and you have enough material for at least a half a dozen shows. What's impressive is that Master Butchers crams all of this narrative into two-and-a-half hours without the seams showing.

It's admirable, actually. But little more—and by the time the curtain comes down, following a flurry of years flying by and a couple of heavy revelations that are tantamount to placing a couple of pancakes on an already teetering stack, one is simply glad to see it finished. As an exercise, it is successful on its own terms, but that didn't keep me from making a beeline out of the place when it was finished.

IN SLEEP DEPRIVATION CHAMBER, Teddy (Lucas Bellamy), a young man from a well-heeled family, exists in the fallout from a night when, after being pulled over for a faulty taillight, he was brutally beaten in the driveway of his own home by a cop—and then charged with assault for his trouble. Also living in the shadow of this injustice is his mother Suzanne (Indira Addington), who falls into reveries of her family's civil-rights activism while slipping away from reality.

It's important stuff, and underscores the traffic stop as one of the front lines in American racial injustice (particularly for African-American men). It's a shame, then, that this production is pretty much a mess from top to bottom. The storytelling is disjointed, never really grounding itself in the script (which seems to be no great shakes in and of itself), and it turns an elliptical story into an interminable drag. We feel the thirst for justice, of course, and the sting of the senseless when Teddy is forced to relive his brutalization. But these emotions never go deeper, and are swamped by a general miasma of indifference and ennui inspired by a scattershot staging.

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