Saturday, April 14, 2012

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children)”

By Olivia Jane Smith
Photo by Sandra Coudert

Jose Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” begins amid the shock and adrenaline rush of a group of newbie killers who’ve just perpetrated a bloodbath. One pukes and another hides numbly in a corner while others dance. One simulates sex with a body lying on the floor, living or dead, we’re not sure. They wield machetes and pitchforks and wear scary cartoonish animal masks as, one by one, they burst from the woods we can glimpse through a single door in the back wall, into the abandoned slaughter house where the entire play takes place. The women all wear dresses, as if they might be going to a dinner party, rather than an ambush followed by a murder.

Everyone is covered in blood. It’s pretty grisly and graphic, and for anyone (including me) who is horror-movie-averse, I can attest that it was effective (and by that I mean unpleasant). It’s tempting to write it off as gratuitous. (Later, there are a couple cheap scares that fall into that category.) But “Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” is not only about violence—on both a systemic, totalitarian-regime level and a personal one—but also about the imprint it leaves on its perpetrators, no matter how righteous. Can you go back home and sing to your children after killing someone, even if your victim was himself a murderous dictator?
So the blood and glee and exultation that opens the show is important, and Rivera shows us how, like Lady Macbeth’s spot, it doesn’t wash away so easily. “In my body, all his pain is stuck and it won’t come out,” Lila (Sona Tatoyan), says of their victim. Lila reads taro cards and has a vaunted intuition. She suspects her condition is temporary. She should know better.
Imagine Uganda under Idi Amin, or Cambodia under Pol Pot, or Argentina under Pinochet, and you have some idea of what Grandville, a town in some unnamed part of New England, is like under the reign of terror perpetrated by Joe (the terrifyingly quiet Anatol Yusef). We learn about Joe’s heinous crimes from the murderous tribe that has attempted to take him down, along with their own lives, and how each in turn was tragically impacted by Joe’s rise to power. Vivy (Dana Eskelson) is a school teacher who is involved mainly through her association with Panama (Jojo Gonzalez), the ringleader, who saw his wife, Mariana, brutally killed by Joe or his minions (he has the police snugly in his pocket). Lila is convinced Joe is slowly killing her mother, and Eliseo (William Jackson Harper) is mostly along for the ride with her. Janis (Jolly Abraham) and her husband Erik (Adrian Martinez) lost their child under Joe’s rule, as did Hector (Brendan Averett).
Joe’s effect is far more colorful than I’ve let on; in keeping with Rivera’s bent toward magical realism, Joe’s evil extends beyond the bounds of the possible and into the supernatural. Nothing grows in the formerly lush farmland around the town. Lila talks of finding a dead baby by the side of the road, covered in honey and flies. In a sickly paradox, the town’s children adore their civic leader, and sing something called “The Joe Song” (just the title makes you see why it drives the town’s adult population to the bring of insanity). When the characters talk of “little spies” that invade their homes and turn them in for trespasses against what could be called Joe’s Commandments—rules posted around the town in prominent spots—it’s their own spawn and those of their friends they seem to be speaking of. “It’s not a crime if you kill the devil, it’s a f---ing sacrament,” says Janis.
The play explores the ways in which the natural product of endemic violence is fear, and fear’s opponent is deep trust. The fact that the play’s central murders are enacted by three pairs of lovers—Vivy and Panama, Lila and Eliseo, and Erik and Janis—gives the playwright an opening. “We promised to kill each other’s monsters,” Janis says of their wedding vows, which is another way of keeping each other safe. “If you could see my dreams, would they scare you away, or draw you closer to me?” Lila demands of Eliseo. And Vivi talks about how “a kiss can be political”—to do it properly, you have to be brave enough to close your eyes.
Rivera’s language can be magical, and the beauty of his words goes a long way toward getting us through a grim, if thought-provoking, evening of theater (for some people the blood may help too). The characters, with the possible and surprising exception of Joe, never seem like real people who could be our neighbors. One suspects this is partly from the extreme circumstances we find them in, and partly from Rivera’s heightened language (which can be a strength and a weakness). We learn, mostly through monologues taken in turns, enough about these people to feel we should care about their fates and Joe’s. But my sympathies remained firmly at a distance, and the play’s pleasures were those of ideas brought to vivid dramatic life, rather than emotions. (That may indeed have been Rivera’s intention.) The one exception might have been Hector’s remembrance of his disappeared son, Richie. Otherwise the play can feel speechy, given as these characters are to storytelling and self-examination. It also felt long, but not tedious, and certainly not without rewards, as the conundrums of human behavior at the play’s center gradually take shape.
When Anatol’s Yusef’s Joe appears in the second act, back from the dead, he feels more alive than his shell-shocked attackers, who seem zombie-like by comparison. As he tortures each of his would-be killers with tales of his or her past misdeeds—whether true or not isn’t the point—he waters the seeds of fear and mistrust, in themselves and in each other, that their act of violence against him has planted. “How do you clean away bad faith?” someone asks. The play doesn’t give us any easy answers.
Director Brian Mertes oversaw a production whose elements came together impeccably, including most notably the set Andromache Chalfant; costumes by Cait O’Connor; lights by Austin Smith; sound by Broken Chord; Erin Kennedy Lunsford’s bloody makeup; Andrew Diaz’ props; masks by Julian Crouch and Cait O’Connor; and a sad sweet song written by Saskia Lane. Mertes shows a deft hand with the play’s surprises and stop-and-look moments (though the use of water, while pretty, feels trite, perhaps because the first performer to make use of it strikes such a statuesque pose). The performers’ takes to the audience, on the other hand, were perfectly hollow and haunted.
For a show that ran two-and-a-half hours with one intermission, Mertes sustains a remarkable level of tension. No wonder we feel wrung out by the end. As Lila says at one point, “Well, that was a lot of laughs.”
"Massacre (Sing to Your Children)"
Written by José Rivera
Directed by Brian Mertes
Featuring Jolly Abraham, Brendan Averett, Dana Eskelson, Jojo Gonzalez, William Jackson Harper, Adrian Martinez, Sona Tatoyan, Anatol Yusef
Sets by Andromache Chalfant
Costumes by Cait O’Connor
Lighting by Austin Smith
Sound by Daniel Baker
Props by Andrew Diaz
echnical Direction by Katie Takacs

Production Stage Manager: Melissa Mae Gregus
Assistant Stage Manager: Sam Horwith
April 4 – May 12, 2012
Wed-Sat 8PM; Sun 3PM; Mon 8PM

Postshow Talkbacks 4/11, 4/25, 5/9

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Pl
New York, NY 10014

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