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Review: The Ochre House’s ‘Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep’

by Jerome Weeks 8 Apr 2013 5:23 PM

The Ochre House offers a change-of-pace from its more outrageous productions — it’s something of a backwoods, psychological thriller about meat processing. Yep. That counts as kinda conventional here.


You want to do wha-a-a-a-t to us? Image from Shutterstock

With his new play at the Ochre House, writer-director-actor Matt Posey seems to have gone radical vegetarian on us. He’s created a backwoods Equus about the industrialized killing of sheep, a kind of psychological thriller fueled by meat guilt.

In Equus, Peter Shaffer’s drama from 1973, a young man is obsessed with horses, a sexual and spiritual obsession that leads to his ritually blinding several of them. The young man relates all this to an older, sympathetic psychiatrist. In Posey’s Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep, a young slaughterhouse employee is tormented by nightmares about the sheep he’s been cutting up. And these nightmares he relates to an older, sympathetic co-worker.

Sheep is a change-of-pace for the Ochre House. Posey is our gnarly king of North Texas boho theater. His Ochre House has specialized in enthusiastically sordid (and often hilarious) take-downs of conventional dramas and stage traditions, obscene man-cave puppet shows (the Coppertone series) and surreal, biographical promos of what might be termed counter-culture icons (Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Charles Manson).

Yet of all things, Sheep turns out to be old-fashioned kitchen-table theater. To be sure, Posey has never settled for the conventions of dishwater-realist drama. Sheep offers us shadow play and puppetry and an onstage musical trio providing whispery, rattling, horror-movie sound effects. But in terms of dramatic action, what we mostly get here are two (sometimes three) people just sitting at a table, chatting and arguing. In other words, Sheep — uncharacteristically for an Ochre House production — is static and talky.

What holds our attention — for a while — is the kind of talk Posey’s devised. Set in some Appalachian holler, Sheep talks in an arcane, heightened language that’s part King James Bible, part killing-floor slang. It’s like Deadwood-speak, with a lot of that show’s abundant profanities subtracted. Or, perhaps because a Mason jar full of corn liquor is sampled throughout, the talk is an echo of the hillbilly-moonshiners in Dallas writer Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World (made into the film, Lawless).

At any rate, the words are a rich, poetic mouthful. Posey plays Charleywise, an older hand who saw Spencerville, his younger, troubled roommate (Justin Locklear), speaking to the company manager. The ‘minister,’ as Charleywise calls him, ‘looked at you in perplexity and in deep consternation.’ As for Spencerville’s troubled dreams, Charleywise fears he may ‘go loon.’ He assures the young man his “bladies offer the woolies a kindliness” — his sharp knives give the sheep a quick death.

But it’s as if Posey fell in love with his poetry. The dialogues drag on too long, and the play itself does, too, especially in the second act. The story starts with Spencerville haunted by the dead sheep, and nothing really changes. Other things do happen: Charleywise reveals a shy attraction to a female co-worker and Spencerville helps him write an introductory note. And Chloe, the female co-worker (Elizabeth Evans), rather too coincidentally pops up at their house the next night.

But because Spencerville’s creeping loss of control is fairly predictable, the early tension doesn’t grow. Possible complications — Why does Charleywise lie? Are he and Chloe in cahoots? And what about the other strange characters at the slaughterhouse? — mostly go nowhere until a last, long, climactic bout of violence occurs, and it’s mostly offstage, at that.

This failure to tighten, to focus, is a pity because Posey and Company have poured a fair amount of work into the play’s ambitious machinery, all the stuff that’s meant to transform Sheep into something other-worldly: the giant doll head, the life-size sheep puppets and the shadow projections.  But the giant doll head mostly just muffles Locklear’s speeches, while the projections don’t morph into anything monstrous or truly surprising. We see the shadow of Locklear’s head and small figures of sheep whirling around him. How does this enlighten us about Spencerville’s inner life?

We’re not talking teasing ambiguities here but basic, missed connections. In Equus, Shaffer saw Dionysian impulses in the young man’s horse mutilations. Here, Posey invokes the sacrifice of Jesus — with the onstage band chanting church hymns about being washed in the Blood of the Lamb. The hymns are some of the best, most evocative music in the show. There’s also a small crucifix on one wall, Charleywise himself prepares some blood pudding at that kitchen table, and the final, ritualistic tableau recalls the three crucifixions on Golgotha.

In short, Sheep is drenched in Christian iconography and atmosphere. Yet none of the characters ever expressly invokes religion — either as an explanation for Spencerville’s growing dementia or their own determination to keep working. We never discover what distinguishes him. Was he simply muttonhead crazy from the start?

So we get a psychological thriller without much … psychology.