Dark Humor in 'Slaughter City' Emphasizes Industry Ills

Photo: <b>Gone to slaughter.</b> Director Catherine Ming T'ien's take on the play
Weiferd Watts/Courtesy
Gone to slaughter. Director Catherine Ming T'ien's take on the play "Slaughter City" drives the audience to think about the food industry-and the social injustice it at times represents.

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Correction Appended

Audiences gasped, cringed, cried and blushed at the Zellerbach Playhouse on Friday night. Rarely does a piece not only induce such varied emotions, but also address a broad assortment of social issues-and all through the compilation of different mediums. The result is a sensory overload, leaving one ultimately moved but also utterly confused.

Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS) production of Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City" forces one to reexamine the definition of genre, as Wallace's play transcends this label. Neither setting, nor plot, nor character is static in "Slaughter City." Still, it manages to connect every piece of this massive collage and ensure that its analysis of the working conditions in the meat-packing industry is well-received.

The production could have easily be mistaken for that of a professional company. The actors are well-educated in what motifs Wallace had intended to emphasize and they execute these with the utmost passion. Every last slap, shout and embrace is dripping with intensity.

For only being able to employ the use of minimal props and three projector screens, the set design staff manages to bring the play to life tactfully and creatively. The projectors display images and scenes paralleling the recurring motifs. The stage ground is even painted in an almost tribal manner, adding to the atmosphere of lunacy and magic. All of this, of course, may also be attributed to director Catherine Ming T'ien Duffly, a Berkeley PhD candidate.

Wallace draws parallels between the early 1900s and 1990s, featuring an immortal phantom (played by Allison Fenner) whose mother is killed in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The corruption and subsequent suffering of workers has not yet been resolved. Lack of safety education and equipment, unsanitary work areas and general abuse by corporate powers drives these people to the edge and, in some cases, the end.

The production analyzes race and gender roles in both contemporary and historical contexts. The characters' interactions blur popular interpretation of these concepts. The audience is faced with an African-American in a high-ranking corporate position heckling an Irish-American custodian and calling him "nigger." Wallace questions the ethics behind affirmative action and its effects on those who benefit from it, as well as the treatment of men and women in the workplace.

Random outbursts of insanity and jarring song and dance routines liken their butcher uniforms to straightjackets. When Roach finds her co-worker Brandon (Daniel Petzold) passionately devouring one of the dead pigs in search of a sexual outlet, the audience realizes that these characters are not completely put together.

Comedy and sexual innuendo are prevalent throughout the show, not only serving to lighten the heavy subject matter, but to portray the workers' desperate attempts at distraction from their physical and emotional pain: When living on the brink of poverty, sex is the cheapest and most accessible form of security and entertainment.

This collision of raw depiction of the meat-packing industry with artistic genius left its audience in a state of theatrical ecstasy, as well as contemplation regarding its social implications. Though the production may have been somewhat sensationalized to create a better show, the audience is left with a wrenching feeling in one's stomach about the horror that goes into the food people consume every day.

Correction: Thursday, March 18, 2010
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the character Brandon was devouring a dead cow. In fact, he was devouring a dead pig.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Erin Donaldson at [email protected]

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