The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas (Delphine Watzka) and Sheila Tousey (Step and a Half) in the Guthrie Theater production of THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Photo by Michal Daniel.

The Guthrie Theatre presented the world premier of The Master Butchers Singing Club Sunday evening, a dramatization of Minnesota writer, Louise Erdrich’s, novel.

Marsha Norman’s adaptation, developed and directed by Francesca Zambello, took a rich and wonderful book, dense with characters and subplots, and fashioned a hybrid of direct address narrative and dramatic work. This approach made it possible to retain a lot of the book – more, in fact, than was needed, but it certainly pays tribute to the vibrancy of the original.

Norman chose to augment an important but mostly peripheral Native American presence in the plot by handing the bulk of the narration to “Step and a Half,” a woman haunted by her survival of the Wounded Knee Massacre who manages her pain by walking and picking up other people’s discarded junk as she goes. Played evocatively by Sheila Tousey, it made perfect sense to have this character narrate the piece.

It made less sense to have other characters narrate as much as they did, which interrupted the dramatic action frequently, and although skillfully executed and beautiful rendered, visually, it made it work to know who to follow (if you didn’t know the book) and harder to become invested emotionally. 

More like a brunch buffet than supper with the family, it served up more wonderful treats than anyone could ingest all at once – although it was fun trying. Scenes were laden with tasty performances – Bill McCallum as the slimy Sheriff Hock; Jennifer Glagen as the bitter and rigid Tante; Lee Mark Nelson as the bellowing Fidelis, and a bunch of uber-talented youngsters – who enticed us with such a variety of stories. What to choose?

Delphine. It’s supposed to be Delphine, played with an appealing ease by Emily Gunyou Halaas, and wonderfully supported by Katie Guentzel as her strong and beautiful friend, Eva; Charlie Brady as conflicted partner, Cyprian; and Terry Hempleman as her usually drunken father, Roy.

It’s such a heart-warming and entertaining play, and I don’t mean that as a cliché. This one really is, though it lacks the power it might have, if the script had fastened itself more rigorously to a single through-line and not been distracted by the many complexities available to it from the book. But it was a choice that created a splendid landscape, as curious and fascinating to watch as wandering through the back alleys of a small town (a more interesting trip than driving down the main street).

The fuel that powers this story is the critical question of Delphine’s parentage, which was meaningfully underscored, but the resolution abandoned the wonderful irony of truth in the book for an expected and sentimental ending, achieved at last after a bit of fumbling dialogue near the end of the second act. Not only is Erdrich’s handling of this brilliant, it is at the core of the book’s message, explaining so much about the ability of a human life to not only heal but to rise above. Why alter so much beauty? The sticky question of how to render it dramatically was worth figuring out a way to overcome it.

The Master Butchers Singing Club runs through November 6.

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