As soon as the lights go off in the Mudlark Public Theatre at the beginning of Butcher Holler Here We Come, the actors pull the audience down with them into a caved-in mineshaft as they fall and tumble with the rubble. The play focuses on the increasing desperation of five West Virginia coal miners buried deep below the earth. It plays out right in the center of the Mudlark’s small room with the actors illuminated only by their headlamps.
The darkness is pervasive, and when the lights go off, signaling transitions between scenes, it is like a visual curtain being drawn across the audience’s eyes. In the cramped, full house, we were all keenly aware of the tension.
This is no standard bottle drama, though. The dialogue flashes constantly with the miners speaking from all corners of the room, their lines coupled like coal cars one behind the other. There is a lyrical tinge to the language used, giving the rough character of minerspeak and technical jargon a unique flow. Very often the actors are compiling verbal structures together, stacking nouns and phrases together quickly to build poem-like passages. If you pay very close attention you can catch each and every detail, but it’s not required to understand the action.
Southern accents can be problematic for many productions, especially more independent companies that may not be able to access a voice coach. I don’t know if the Aztec Economy collective had one or not, but each actor had a firm control on their speech and mannerisms, from Hic’s frantic tenor and hysterical hiccups to the imposing MuskIe’s longer drawl. Cole Wimpee was especially convincing as Jet, the hoarse miner who was already feeling trapped within the Company system before being literally captured within its poor safety measures.
In the same way, the colorful names of small towns across the Appalachians, local foods, country stars, and familiar dog breeds were called upon often to portray the world that might never be seen again. The passion these men had for the small comforts of their lives was effectively used, and it was very encouraging to see Southern-ness layered into the entire product rather than added as an overindulgent glaze.
Each miner takes their turn interacting with a ghost who helps them to lift the drape off of a shared history one corner at a time. Each interaction is different, offering the actors and the script a chance to flex. When one miner’s mind finally breaks, the show,already stacked precariously to begin with, tips along with it. After a desperate game of survival cleverly packaged as a countdown, the show finally releases the audience from the mine, dazed and trying to reorient into the real world.
Butcher Holler Here We Come is the type of show that elevates the Fringe Festival. Perfectly executed in performance, structure, and fringe-iness, it is also a natural fit for its venue. I don’t think the show would be as impactful playing to audiences in any of the larger Fringe-managed venues. Be sure to get there a little early to insure yourself a seat as only about forty are available.
Read our feature article about Butcher Holler, with insight from Aztec Economy co-founder Cole Wimpee.
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