STREAMING REVIEW: Butcher Holler Here We Come (Ad Hoc Economy)

Review by Tim George

[Coming to (home) theatres]

American theatre company Ad Hoc Economy was due to play Wellington’s BATS Theatre in the final week of the NZ Fringe before travelling on to the Dunedin Fringe, but performances were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The company filmed scenes from the show while at BATS, which has been spliced with scenes recorded by individual actors in quarantine in the USA. Tim George reviews Butcher Holler Here We Come, streaming now via the BATS website

Watching the show on a laptop screen, I was pondering exactly what this performance of Butcher Holler Here We Come would look like. Filmed theatre does not strike me as the most engrossing way to take in live drama – the whole point is in that word ‘live’.

The suspension of disbelief and the level of intimacy between viewer and performer for a theatrical production is different from a film, as is the emotional investment. Stitched together from a live performance and an assembly of the performers each acting their roles in isolation, it is impossible to watch or write about Butcher Holler Here We Come without the frame of the current global situation. 

Based around a group of West Virginia coal miners trapped in a tunnel after a cave-in, Butcher Holler Here We Come is an examination of masculinity under duress, a critique of American capitalism, its exploitation of labour and the history of colonization and genocide against the indigenous peoples whose lands were stolen and are now being systematically destroyed in the name of Mammon.

As drama this is meaty stuff. And as a traditional theatrical experience, I am sure it would be engrossing. In its original incarnation, the show is presented in near-darkness, with the cast illuminated solely by the lights on their headlamps – a suitably striking visual that winds up being near-perfect for the transfer to a new medium which includes close ups as a part of its vocabulary.

As a cinematic experience, Butcher Holler Here We Come becomes far more claustrophobic, and the characters’ predicament feels more immediate and visceral. Another effect of its production is, because the second half had to be assembled piecemeal from multiple sources, the chaotic editing syncs almost perfectly with the escalating intensity of the characters’ plight, and their growing interpersonal conflicts.

The cast (Cole Wimpee, Brendan Flood, Isaac Byrne, Adam Laten and Michael Mason) are all terrific. The naturalism of their performances also work well with the jerky handheld photography. 

On top of the script and the ensemble’s performances, the show gains an added non-diegetic power from simply existing and functioning as a piece of story-telling. Despite enormous challenges – and I am sure there is a great ‘making-of’ story behind it – watching Butcher Holler Here We Come this way adds a whole other level of tension.

When the company’s song midway through is cut off by an ugly edit, or when sound dips out, or a shot has poor resolution, these moments feel like potholes, constantly drawing attention to the experience of watching this on a screen. But rather than take me out of the experience, it became the experience – watching a group of creative people pull this show together despite the odds.

Butcher Holler Here We Come is streaming at BATS until 6:30pm NZT, Monday 13th April. 

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