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How to Love a Theater, Even When You Hate the Play

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Okay, hate may be too strong a word. But Massacre (Sing to Your Children) by Jose Rivera is largely a pretentious muddle spiced with gross-out references to violence. And you should definitely see it because it's being produced at convergence-continuum theater—a performance space and acting company you should love, even when they try your patience.

The Cleveland-Akron area is blessed with several theaters that deserve that kind of unquestioning devotion. They deserve that not because you adore every production they mount, but because they are out there tracking down interesting scripts and providing unexpected and stimulating live theater experiences.

Take Massacre, for instance. Playwright Rivera has a solid stage resume and, if this sort of thing matters to you, he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, The Motorcycle Diaries. In Massacre, he presents us with seven people howling with vengeance as they enter a home, dripping in blood and each holding a different implement of destruction. They've just beaten and stabbed a man who lies bleeding on their porch, and they couldn't be happier or more proud of themselves.

Their leader, Panama, is full of joy at their gory success and riffs on the lyrical plans he has for them in the future. His multi-racial and multi-generational gaggle of followers responds in kind with specific tributes to their own viciousness, as middle-age Vivy (the always hypnotic Lucy Bredeson-Smith) coos, "I fucked him in the neck with a thin steel cock."

We soon learn that the unfortunate fellow outside, Joe, is a venal and despicable cretin who rules their town with an iron fist, murdering and raping at will. That's a damn interesting way to begin a play, but the first act quickly gets bogged down in navel-gazing that swings from self-congratulation ("We are revolutionaries!") to self-doubt ("Who was that out there, pretending to be me?").

In Act Two, the brutalized guy on the porch suddenly begins speaking to the would-be assassins inside, chiding them about their attempt to kill him and peeling away some of their personal secrets. Clearly, we are in magical realism territory here—is Joe a person, an idea, or both?—so many of the usual bounds are off. Rivera is attempting to use a murder mystery to explore the nature of oppression and the often-violent revolution it triggers. Does it all work?

Not entirely. But this is why you need to love a theater that will go out on a limb and produce a play with this kind of fierce point of view and risk-taking nature, even if it doesn't quite hang together as a piece of theater.

Of course, the theater you love has an obligation that goes beyond just selecting scripts that are offbeat or challenging. They also must take the necessary time in rehearsals to develop characters that can amplify and add nuance to the playwright's words-even when the characters on the page are a bit dull or clichéd.

In this regard, the cast under the direction of Clyde Simon is only sporadically successful. In the two lead roles of Panama and Joe, Wesley Allen and Brian Westerley flit around the edges of compelling characters but never take the plunge.

As Panama, Allen creates an ingratiating persona that is appropriate for the leader of a loose-knit gang such as this, but he never adds more notes to that overly simplistic approach. And Westerley's Joe is not well-served by blocking that has him unseen on the porch, talking at times through the door, and at other times wandering around inside the room while the others still focus on the door. Without seeing the gang of seven interacting with their nemesis, face-to-face, the play loses a ton of potential steam.

A goateed Beau Reinker and sultry Hillary Wheelock develop an interesting relationship as Eliseo and Lila, but their reactions to the revivified Joe never make much sense. Jamal Davidson never loosens up sufficiently as Erik, so his attraction to the slight Janis (a game Kelsey Rubenking), a young woman who unaccountably finds time in this abattoir to compose a tune on her guitar, doesn't seem credible even in the context of a play where nothing is meant to be entirely believable. And Dennis Burby as Vivy's pal Hector is just missing in action.

These days, there is much that should be said, and shouted from the rooftops, about oppressive forces that seem to be twisting our lives in ways not experienced before. So an allegory of the type Rivera is attempting is certainly welcome and timely. And thank God there are theaters in town that choose to present this material, even though the script and the execution sometimes fall short of the mark.

That's why you gotta love convergence-continuum and other similar theaters. Go to their shows. All of them. Think about them, and talk about them. You'll be better for it.

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