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Theatre in Review: Send for the Million Men (HERE)

Joseph Silovski, Victor Morales. Photo: Cory Weaver

Send for the Million Men begins with a striking image of a young man playing catch with his father under rather unusual circumstances: He must toss the ball over a stone wall, where it is caught and thrown back; the two players never see each other. This is because the father is one half of the notorious team of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose criminal case and prosecution is the subject of Joseph Silovsky's inventive theatre piece. Prepare to leave the theatre with your blood boiling.

With his unkempt hair, tattered sweatshirt, and often distracted manner, Silovsky would hardly seem to be the perfect guide to this dark chapter in modern legal history. But even his apparently silliest strategy usually comes with a sting: Early on, he gives a tape measure to an audience member in the first row. Pulling the tape, he exits the auditorium through an upstage door, still talking. He returns, a minute or two later, through the room's main entrance, still talking -- informing us that he has covered a distance of 115 feet. The audience is laughing until he adds that this is same distance from which a witness claimed to identify Sacco and Vanzetti, even though she saw them for only a second. This key piece of testimony sent them to the electric chair. Suddenly, silence reigns in the theatre.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were workers -- a shoemaker and a fishmonger -- who were indicted and eventually convicted of killing two men while robbing a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. Far less relevant than the evidence against them which, at best, was shaky, was the fact that the men were both immigrants and anarchists connected to a group that had been linked to the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's Washington, DC home a year earlier. Sloppy police work, dubious witnesses, popular prejudice, a climate of fear, and a remarkable ability to bury any conflicting evidence -- each of these played a part in their convictions. Their trials -- there were two -- became a cause célèbre, but not enough to save them from execution.

Silovsky narrates most of the tangled story using a variety of techniques, including projections, puppets, video, lighting and sound effects, and his signature robots. His rambling, oddball sense of humor and the preciousness of some of his presentational ideas might seem inappropriate for this tragic tale. But he knows what he is doing: What otherwise might be a straightforward lecture comes to life through a variety of staging ideas, and Silovsky's apparent fooling around is really just a way of catching us off guard with infuriating facts that leave you wondering if our justice system works at all.

Thus Silovsky, outfitted with tiny explosives like a suicide bomber, throws himself to the floor, creating a startlingly loud effect that indicates the shock waves set off by the Palmer bombing. (In a demonstration of how that explosion scattered debris, human and otherwise, far and wide, he displays what he says is the piece of vertebra that a small child, sleeping in a house nearby, found in his bed.) A video animation shows how a friend of Sacco and Vanzetti's, held in conjunction with the Palmer bombing, was mysteriously defenestrated from a New York skyscraper. A projection, shown on a series of pieces of luggage, creates South Braintree's main street, right down to the moving trolley car in which Sacco and Vanzetti were captured. The first judge who tried the men is represented by a tower made of suitcases, with the jurist's face project on the top; when the verdict comes in, the bags are sent tumbling, a powerful image of justice reduced to a shambles. Just when you think that Silovsky has no more staging ideas left, the upstage curtain parts to reveal a wall of small light bulbs in large reflectors that react to the performer's movements, creating an eerie, dreamy atmosphere as death draws near.

Far from being distracting, these, and the musical underscoring performed by Catherine McRae, work to highlight the narrative, making us easily grasp the key moments where justice went awry. The video projections, by Victor Morales, who also appears with Silovsky, are far more sophisticated than they initially appear, as they depend on precise placement on the various objects scattered around the stage. McRae's sound design provides a steady undercurrent of music and effects; she also reinforces Morales' voice in one key sequence. Laura Mroczkowski's lighting constantly reconfigures the space, from tightly focused looks to broad washes; she also makes fascinating use of the light wall. Ryan Holsopple designed the electronics, which, I assume, means the robot characters.

There are moments when you might wish Silovsky would tell his tale more clearly. He doesn't effectively link Sacco and Vanzetti to Luigi Galleani, the anarchist, whose followers were probably behind the Palmer bombing. His presentation of Sacco and Vanzetti's sojourn in Mexico is confusing; it was only later, reading up on them, that I realized that the trip took place in 1917, three years before their arrest. The lengthy puppet show connected to their stay there could be significantly trimmed.

But Silovsky's invention never flags. Near the end, to demonstrate the level of popular sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti, he unfurls a roll of paper on which is printed an image of a parade. He begins with extreme stage left and walks across the stage, pulling the paper to make the lineup of supporters grow ever longer. Suddenly, he drops the paper to the ground, a stunning way of suggesting that so much good will did nothing to save the two men from execution.

On the day I saw Send for the Million Men, the newspapers were full of stories about politicians hyperventilating over immigration policy, and the streets of the city were partially paralyzed over the acquittal of a policeman who killed an unarmed black man while trying to arrest him. If you think Silovsky's piece is merely a history lesson, you're living in a dream world.--David Barbour


(8 December 2014)

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