Theater review: ‘The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)’ at Atwater Village Theatre


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Based on a shameful incident in Los Angeles history, Tom Jacobson’s “The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)” is one of those noble experiments that somehow fizzled in the laboratory.

Presented by Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre, “Massacre” is a world premiere that runs concurrently with “The House of the Rising Son,” another Jacobson world premiere in the adjacent theater.

Part of the problem lies with the play itself, a massively ambitious but stylistically pretentious piece based on an 1871 race riot in which 19 Chinese men and boys were lynched. Another problem lies with Jeff Liu’s enterprising but only sporadically successful staging, which fails to rein in the sprawling dimensions of Jacobson’s very busy text.

A large and somewhat checkered cast portrays a multitude of characters, many of which are flung into the story without the crucial groundwork that would adequately explain their inclusion. More at issue is Jacobson’s framing device, which consists of various narrators commenting, portentously and retrospectively, about the social turmoil leading up to the riot. As one narrator remarks, these “footnotes,” replete with laborious recitations from various newspapers of the day, are intended to keep us at an alienating Brechtian distance from the proceedings, which we are urged to interpret with our minds rather than our hearts.

In that respect, Jacobson hedges his bets. The play vacillates between genuineness and artifice, leaving one wondering what the prolific Jacobson, author of more than 50 plays, actually intended this time around. Fascinating historical nuggets can be gleaned from the play’s rushing flow, yet Jacobson’s icy and intellectually confusing conceit keeps the audience at an emotional distance that is never bridged.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

‘The Chinese Massacre (Annotated),’ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends May 28. $25. (323) 644-1929. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.