Everyone, especially those working in customer service, need a good laugh in the middle of the busy festival season if we hope to keep our jobs and our heads. Pure Theatre took on the challenge of providing this laugh with Andy Livengood’s one-man show “Butcher Stories,” a departure from Pure’s more serious work. Directed by core cast member R.W. Smith, “Butcher Stories” is a kind of catharsis. Each customer interaction portrayed in the show is based on real conversations Livengood has had over 20 years working as a butcher.
Set in the meat and seafood department of Chambers, a chain grocery store somewhere in small-town America, the story required little in the way of stage design. A total of three items made up the set: a square box covered in black fabric to create a front counter, a service bell placed in the center and a coat rack draped with aprons adorned with the Chambers logo. Light and sound design were equally minimalistic, with lights only dimming three times to signal the start of each new scene and intercom-style voiceovers occasionally issuing from a speaker.
Livengood was dressed in a red checkered shirt, khakis, sensible sneakers and a green apron with a name tag. His performance made it easy to forget about the show’s simplicity.
Though the narrative features prominently only four distinct characters, the constant customer interactions transform Livengood into countless minor characters — from the elderly Mrs. Morrison who won’t stop calling to ask if the brisket is tender, to mean old “Bowtie Guy” who throws a fit every time he appears, to angry middle-aged customers who didn’t know you were supposed to cook the lobster before you eat it. Livengood manages to play every part without making you wish there was another person on the stage.
Pregnant gluten-free women, tough guys with thick Brooklyn accents, scorned ex-wives looking to catch their cheating husbands in the act and stuffy corporate bigwigs — Livengood played each character convincingly, even though he never so much as changed his apron.
The story is a proper mix of comedy and sincerity, told in three acts, “Senior Citizens Day,” “Corporate Visit” and “Thanksgiving Day.” Alex is an aspiring graphic designer working in the meat department to save money so he can finish college. Alongside him are his soft-spoken coworker Ben, the tough-talking Brooklyn native Tommy and the washed-up athlete and general manager Richard.
Alex must decide whether to climb the corporate ladder at the store or return to school. As his existential quandary grows, so does the chaos at the store. Between blatantly comedic incidents, like a repeat offender throwing orange juice and milk all over the men’s restroom, the store’s overhead intercom makes announcements only Alex can hear, pressuring him to make big decisions about his future. In the end, Alex makes the decision that is best for him, and it leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction.
The stories Livengood tells are almost too ridiculous to believe — unless you’ve worked customer service. “Butcher Stories” is well-written and funny, raising the bar when it comes to one-man shows. It’s hard for one person to play what seems like 100 unique characters convincingly, but Livengood makes it easy to forget that he was alone.
“Butcher Stories” plays again at 4 p.m. June 2 and 6 p.m. June 9 at the Cannon Street Arts Center. Go to www.piccolospoleto.com.
Reviewer Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.