April 10, 2007

Massacre a mixed bag of blood, guts, and glory

Teatro Vista has taken on a lot of challenges in Massacre (Sing to Your Children). For one, they’ve asked the relatively upscale Goodman crowd to sit through a play that opens with seven cast members covered in blood and brandishing meat cleavers, ice picks, and pitchforks. That doesn’t even begin to hint at the psychological turmoil and ethereal atmosphere the play later takes on. Maybe the half-empty, open-seating Saturday matinée performance can be attributed to those challenges.

That said, the production has a lot of strengths. It has a hotshot writer in José Rivera, fresh off an Oscar nomination for The Motorcycle Diaries and with a couple of Obie awards to boot. It’s also got a premiere Chicago director in Chuck Smith, and an excellent Latino ensemble in a city known for strong Latino cultural establishments. Ultimately, while the play is solid overall, Massacre’s challenging material is both its greatest strength and its biggest liability.

The play centers on a Hispanic community in the fictional Granville, New Hampshire, a town that has been taken over by the Big Brother–like authoritarian Joe, whose blood is on the shirts of the ensemble at the opening. Joe has psychologically tormented the townsfolk, stifled their economy, raped their young, and murdered their dissenters. This leads a group of mechanics, cooks, and schoolteachers to launch a resistance. The first half of the first act is filled with a post-murder adrenaline that is immensely captivating. The sex-starved townsfolk calm down eventually (in each other’s arms), but despite the increase in lasciviousness, the play actually lags a little until the climactic closing of the first act. We’re then asked if Joe was really murdered, or even if he could be murdered.

Joe’s off-stage speech in the second act is captivating, made even stronger by the superb delivery of Anthony Mosley, who appears onstage only for the curtain call. Yet Joe’s reappearance also introduces a macabre element into the play that I’m not sure fully works. The dark theme runs through the play early with stories of brutality unrealistic for small-town America (never mind the notion that such a large Latino community would exist in one of the whitest states in the Union), but the questions of Joe’s murder probably do not have a solid enough basis even to be asked, let alone answered. Rivera is obviously going for some existential themes, but he’s also touched upon political issues: The concluding scene of the play, set right before Joe begins his oppressive reign, takes place on September 9, 2001.

Still, the relative vapidity of the play’s message doesn’t detract from its exhilarating pacing and dialogue. Rivera was smart to create characters that are so intensely alive. The cast, led by Henry Godinez and Sona Tatoyan, puts on a visceral show under Smith’s keen direction. Their relationships with each other and with those only mentioned are marred by tragedy, wild accusations, and distrust, and the characters only grow stronger as the play progresses.

The play also features a top-notch design team. The offbeat design of Brian Sidney Bembridge’ sets complements Christine Pascual’s bloodied, sweaty costumes, remarkably accentuating the urgency of the group’s rebellious act. Mary Badger’s lighting design is an amazing display of bold decision-making, opening the play with a blinding red light that gives the audience a surrealist vantage point. In fact, the production’s strength saves the play from the inconsistencies of the script.

If Rivera had either focused on his characters more rigidly or had fleshed out the larger themes a little more, he could have had a genuine hit instead of a gentleman’s B. It would be offensive to say that this play is not “Latin enough,” but I feel the play’s half-empty house speaks to the fact that this play is a work of Latino theater in name only. The characters could just as well be Swedish or Bengali as Puerto Rican, but that doesn’t necessarily limit a solid theatre company that has made a name for itself with visionary productions. It’s not a night of theater for the inexperienced thespian, but at its best Massacre displays how surrealist theater should be done, and at its worst how it can go wrong.