'Massacre (Sing to Your Children)'

An otherwise incoherent drama written in a contrarian style that's a cross between literary Magic Realism and a zombie movie.

There’s a speech in Jose Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” that lyrically conveys the yearnings that impel people to create gods to see them through troubled times. Unfortunately, that lovely speech comes at the end of an otherwise incoherent drama written in a contrarian style that’s a cross between literary Magic Realism and a zombie movie. In a New England town far, far away from this galaxy, a group of citizen vigilantes murder a tyrant named Joe and spend the long, long night quarreling about it. If it weren’t for the peculiar casting, this one might go directly to video.

The voice of Jose Rivera heard in this strained political fantasy is nothing like the haunting voice that made his screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries” so memorable. The language is pretentious, the tone is shrill, and the meaning of it all is deliberately opaque.

The action of the play, which is confined to an abattoir in rural New Hampshire, is no more enlightening.

After an ear-shattering blast of offstage noise, seven masked figures wearing animal costumes drenched in blood burst through the door waving machetes, pitchforks, icepicks and other primitive weapons of destruction. Despite their horrifying appearance, these are no professional assassins, but ordinary people driven to revolutionary violence by the tyrannical cruelty of the local strongman, a charismatic despot named Joe.

Joe is played by the soft-spoken, immaculately dressed and quite scary Anatol Yusef, and once he (or his indestructible evil spirit) returns from the dead in Act II to torment his killers, the play perks up. Whoever he’s meant to represent in Rivera’s murky political scheme, Joe is the kind of guy who might, indeed, command a military police force, bleed the town dry, terrorize the citizens, and do unspeakable things to their children.

Audience members who fail to make it back after intermission (and who could blame them) will be deprived of Joe’s depraved presence. They will also be cursed with vivid memories of the first act, which lingers in painful detail on the reactions of the amateur assassins whose revolutionary zeal led them to commit their gory crime.

Brian Mertes’ permissive helming gives an unevenly skilled cast free license to do themselves all kinds of professional damage. There is much over-emoting in the early scenes, in which the traumatized conspirators react to the violence they’ve committed in a visceral way — by vomiting, weeping, and going into catatonic shock. Their next collective move is to break out in orgiastic exultation. At some point, they all start fighting. Wherever they happen to be on this emotional roller-coaster, they never stop talking, but none of this verbose yak is particularly illuminating.

Although the characters have been written with some sense of individuality, anomalous casting choices lend them an unfortunate air of the grotesque. The group’s sexy and magnetic leader, for instance, is played by Joja Gonzalez, a sad-eyed actor who looks like a Buddhist monk. A sensitive young gay man, as played by Brendan Averett, looks as if he could split logs with his bare hands.

There might be something to all this. Or maybe not.

Massacre (Sing to Your Children)

Rattlestick Theater; 97 seats; $55 top

Production

A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Jose Rivera. Directed by Brian Mertes.

Creative

Set, Andromache Chalfant; costumes, Cait O'Connor; lighting, Austin Smith; sound, Broken Chord; production stage manager, Melissa Mae Gregus. Opened April 12, 2012. Reviewed April 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Panama - JoJo Gonzalez
Erik - Adrian Martinez
Hector - Brendan Averett
Lila - Sona Tatoyan
Eliseo - William Jackson Harper
Janis - Jolly Abraham
Vivy - Dana Eskelson
Joe - Anatol Yusef

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