Massacre (Sing to the Children)
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
April 9, 2012
The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s new production of Jose Rivera’s play Massacre (Sing to Your Children) is difficult to sit through. It is not difficult to watch in the way that some other plays concerned with violence or the grotesque are. As hard as it tries, it doesn’t leave you with the sickness in the pit of your belly that it seems to crave. Massacre is hard to watch because it is dull.
The Rattlestick bills the production as a world premiere, which is curious since it was originally produced in 2007 at the Goodman in Chicago. More curious is the theater’s claim that the play “has been completely re-conceived over the past several years.” Perhaps this has to do with Rivera’s reworking of Massacre as a pilot for HBO, but whatever reworking he did certainly didn’t make the work any better.
The plot is relatively simple. Seven residents of a New Hampshire town have conspired to kill a man named Joe, aka Little Balls, as a desperate attempt to free themselves from the stranglehold he has on them and on the entire town. Over the course of the first act, they rehash and celebrate what they’ve done. There’s a knock at the door, followed by a second act in which Joe appears to have survived their brutal dismembering of him. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here because the play is not really concerned with plot, but with character. In pursuit of character, though, Rivera relies too heavily on revelations about the past, neglecting the present that we’re witnessing. He takes for granted that the recitation and enumeration of painful memories will raise empathy in us. It does, but only in the way that you feel after reading a headline about something horrible that’s happened as opposed to the 10-page, in-depth article that follows. It’s an intellectual empathy.
This is disappointing because the play begins so well. The audience is slapped in the face by Broken Chord’s (appropriately) just-this-side-of-too-loud sound design and Austin Smith’s wonderfully assaultive lighting as a parade of bloody armed figures in animal masks fall, burst, and strut into Andromache Chalfant’s grey slaughterhouse. A tub, showerhead and plastic curtain portend a wet couple of hours washing off the blood that glistens on these people. One pushes his head through his drawn-closed sweatshirt hood like he’s being reborn. There is a ritual quality to it that creates an expectation for a somewhat different play than the one we get. True, ritual plays a part and there is a Greekness to the dramatic structure (a violent murder offstage, a deus ex machina of sorts, etc.). But unlike, say, These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea earlier this year, it fails to move beyond its idea.
And there does seem to be a good idea at the play’s core: a visualization of the violent regimes and resulting revolutions we see happening around the world taking root in small-town America. As we become a more polarized, violent, and apathetic country, this is an idea worth exploring. Rather than explore it, though, Massacre seems to simply present it. When “Little Balls” emerges in the second act with a British accent, dressed in an all-white suit, it conjures a vision of Hannibal Lechter playing the bad guy in a remake of Patrick Swayze’s Roadhouse. As written, he is a Villain in the kitschiest sense, someone we should detest but can only laugh at because he seems so unreal.
This is the root of why Rivera’s play fails to draw me in—I just don’t buy it. The characters never move beyond metaphor and, as much as they protest about cliché, seem to be full of clichés themselves. If, as Joe says dryly, “Our thoughts make the world,” this particular world could use a bit more thought. And maybe theater isn’t the right place to do that. Maybe the breathing room of a season on HBO could be just the thing these characters need.