The Tank, a resourceful nonprofit that provides space and other resources to theatrical and other artists, is reducing its carbon footprint with Dark Fest 2015, a series of productions staged with the power off. The response of the troupe Aztec Economy is Butcher Holler Here We Come, a gut-punch of a play about a group of coal miners trapped by an explosion. The only illumination comes from their headlamps.
Written by the always-edgy Casey Wimpee and directed furiously by Leah Bonvissuto, it’s a snarl of a piece, jumbled and irrational, mostly id. Everything I’ve seen involving Wimpee and his brother Cole (who’s in the cast) has carried a threat of chaos. This is no different – but also different.
I wasn’t always sure what was happening in Butcher Holler. A narrative spoken in total darkness framed the action; I didn’t understand the need for it. Though terror and violence fleck the play, its power comes from the miners’ language. Given that, the tone felt uncomfortable at first, the actors seeming to overdo their delivery and hew imperfectly to their Virginia accents. Rather than trying to be real coal miners, they seem to embrace their status as actors playing miners.
The play won me over once I acclimated to the idea that it’s really a poem, an epic poem of sorts, with heroes and villains, elevated language, and exaggerated drama. A story emerges from the shouts and confusion and half-blind action, with shards of character development and a dark revelation of the cause of the explosion. But it’s the men’s talk that drives the action – talk of strikes, mining legends, their aboveground families and friendships, their past and present woes, their feelings about the comrades who haven’t survived the disaster.
As they unfurl their personalities and troubles, jerking their way towards survival with plenty of hesitancy and distraction, the action escalates from panic and verbal abuse to physical cruelty – in the dark.
Periods of complete darkness punctuate sequences with one or more of the miners turning on their headlamps, so that often we see little more than their faces lit like ghastly masks. There’s no set – none is needed for a play set in darkness – but the audience becomes a set as the actors pace and climb and shout and wheeze and hiccup and chase each other around and behind rows of seating.
It appears that in losing the standard tools of electrical power, especially stage lighting, Aztec Economy gained license for even more narrative iconoclasm than usual. A taste for the avant-garde may be needed to appreciate this dark concoction. It grew on me like a clammy mold in a dark, dank cave – but it grew on me.