In near-total darkness, under a barrage of ear-destroyingly loud music, some kind of horrific act of violence is taking place, involving figures in grotesque animal masks, streams of blood, and a range of hideous weapons. So begins a play—or at least, a lumpy mass of parts of a dozen plays congealed together—by José Rivera. Not that either the chaos, the violence, or the congealing jumble of dramatic events should surprise anyone. Rivera is a poet who is also a clown, an American playwright whose dramas mingle our homegrown psychological naturalism with symbol-heavy European idea-drama and lush infusions of Latin American magic realism.
You can demand theatrical satisfaction from Rivera’s works—though you probably won’t get it from his latest piece, Massacre (Sing to Your Children) (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)—but be assured that the one thing he’ll never provide is a clear picture in which everything falls tidily into place. At his best, he writes cogently and with enormous power, but writing in an orderly fashion simply isn’t part of his literary nature. You might as well expect Oscar Wilde to write like Charles Bukowski, or vice versa. And Rivera would probably tell you that he admires them both.
Certainly, Massacre (Sing to Your Children) seems to share elements of both Wilde and Bukowski, along with a host of other inspirations, among which Camus’s Les Justes seems high on the table of contents. A comedy of recriminations that morphs into a moral (and possibly a religious) allegory, set in an abandoned slaughterhouse to which seven conspirators have retreated after apparently committing a political assassination, Massacre is a play in which every assertion turns out to be either an evasion or a lie, shortly to be rebuked by somebody else’s assertion.
Though the atmosphere and attitudes suggest a dictator-riven Central American state, Rivera’s seven conspirators have plotted to rub out Joe (Anatol Yusef), the seemingly omniscient boss of a small New England town, claiming that he has maimed each of their lives in some distinctive way. Joe, whose ostensible slaughter doesn’t prevent him from having a lot to say in reply, provides plenty of evidence that his opponents’ faults lie in their own dishonestly mixed motives. Ideas, revelations, and confrontations zing by—mostly, in Brian Mertes’s production, as pointlessly frenetic screaming fits, though quieter moments show his cast capable of better. The tonal incoherence doesn’t help Rivera’s provocative, but maddeningly shapeless, play.