José Rivera's overwritten and underdeveloped new morality play, Massacre (Sing to Your Children), which is receiving its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre (in conjunction with Teatro Vista), is about the Id Monster. To be sure, the monster is humanized in the form of the never-seen town bully who, after years of dominating a small New Hampshire village, is slashed to death by seven townspeople.
As in a classic Greek tragedy, that pivotal action takes place off stage. We hear shouts as the stage is bathed in lurid red light, and then the blood-soaked seven enter the barren home of the ring leader, Panama. At first the septet rejoices, but it becomes apparent that Joe the bully has ripped apart a circle of once-close friends. They've done him in, but must air old grievances as they dream of a "Golden Age" for their little town.
It seems a gory bit of realism. After all, there have been instances of just such vigilante actions against horrific bullies who brutalized, raped, and even murdered small town citizenry. But Rivera's work quickly blurs the lines of what may or may not be real. Despite four-letter words and the salt-of-the-earth nature of the four men and three women, the characters speak in the heightened language of poetic realism with lines such as "Where do I go with my thoughts? Where do I bury my regrets?" or "Whose spirit have I stolen to tell my story?" What the good citizens have killed is heightened as well, not human but a primal, visceral force of evil, fear, despair.
Then, in Act II, Joe re-emerges as a voice outside the door, lacerating each of the seven for moral lapses and human faults, playing on frayed nerves, fears, infidelities and secret sins. It's quite apparent that Joe is the Id Monster. In case the audience doesn't get it, one character says, "No one knows what is in each of our hearts" and another declares "In the middle of the worst thing, you find what you can live with."
But Rivera doesn't stop there. In part, Massacre borrows from Sophocles, as the characters reveal that no crops have been planted, no child has been born in six years, as one-third of the town population has disappeared. This isn't a bully at work; this is a plague, a curse such as settled upon the Thebes of Oedipus; a curse brought upon the people by their own imperfections. Bully Joe will live as long as friends regard each other with suspicion and doubt.
For all of the work's flaws, the production is very well crafted. Veteran director Chuck Smith is clever and effective in creating easy-flowing stage pictures as the players --all Teatro Vista company members -- move across the broad and intentionally plain interior set by Brian Bembridge.
But not even this vigorous, intense and highly physical production and committed acting can disguise the play's awkward construction, curious borrowings, and pretentious theme.