Nicole Roberts as Mary Graves in Jeremy Menekseoghu’s “RIO.” Courtesy of Dream Theatre.
Nicole Roberts as Mary Graves in Jeremy Menekseoghu’s “RIO.” Courtesy of Dream Theatre.

Excuse me, my name is Mary Graves, and I’m a victim of spousal abuse.” So begins Dream Theatre’s “RIO,” a play written by Dream’s own Jeremy Menekseoglu and set in the rundown, sun-swept, nineties-ish border town of Hope, Texas. Graves’s opening appeal frames the play with the town’s bruised squalor and the quiet, nervous violence endemic to this murder-thriller’s plot. Graves stares into the audience, asking for a dollar, a quarter, anything. She confronts the fourth wall as a one-way mirror, locking eyes with individual audience members, calling them out personally (“Mister—!”) for pretending not to see her. The outside world to which she appeals remains quiet to the football-sized wound she shows on her thigh. She growls with barely contained menace. “Ya’ll are nothing, anyways.”

Despite her dismissiveness, audience addressals resurface throughout “RIO,” most frequently leveraged by Willy, the play’s nominal antagonist. Willy remains stage right for Graves’s opening sequence, swilling beer, shadows ringing his eyes. Initially he stands in for her distant, abandoned husband; but a lighting change properly introduces him sullenly camping out in an interminable migrant job line. He steps forward, offering Graves a place to stay, forcing out his domineering partner and would-be fiancée, Beth. The tension between his suggested deadly character and his professed goodwill creates a persistent uneasiness that powers the plot.

Accordingly, when he imagines the audience as the job line and singles out a viewer as the indiscriminate “Paco,” the resultant laughter comes with more difficultly. He overacts his heavy gaze—the two-fingered, V-shaped “I’m watching you” gesture—into comic hostility. But his danger is unshakable; Willy is more than the grown playground bully he appears. By day, he respects Graves’s misfortune and uncertainty and befriends her. By night, he steps toward the audience drunkenly, cornering the earlier scene’s Paco on his way home. As he closes in on the banister dividing stage from seats, absurdly telling the audience member how he wants to chat about his most recent dream, we smile. When he starts talking about Inquisitors in red—men being anally impaled, sawn through the shoulder—we sober up.

Then he unsheathes a bowie knife in the faces of those in the first row.

A Federale comes on stage to announce Paco’s death. Officer Posada tells us that his murder belongs to a rash of grisly killings: illegal Mexican immigrants have been floating back across the Rio Grande, disemboweled and dismembered. Posada presents his evidence to audience members as fellow marshals. Unable to gain U.S. cooperation and Mexico City’s authorization, he sets across the border alone. Accompanied by heroic trumpets and guitars, tricked out with a tactical revolver and stylish hat, he is a lone warrior against chaotic evil.

Just as the audience has been forced into so many widely ranging roles (insensitive wayfarer, mute Paco, disinterested law enforcement) the characters themselves prove no more stable. The honorable Federale’s investigation increasingly relies on gunpoint interrogation and extrajudicial arrests, detaining both Mary and Beth. When he calls in and is summarily discharged for prosecuting his lead too vigorously, he freaks out. He has subsumed his life into a flimsy title. When Posada briefly seizes Willy, he brainstorms a torture sequence not unlike his captive’s dream. And when his remaining shot at glory escapes with Willy—crazily set on finding the illegally sequestered Graves—he nearly blows his brains out, alone encouraged to continue the hunt by fawning praise from Beth. He greets us championing the inalienable rights of his Mexican countrymen. He ends the play having surrendered his recaptured prisoner to American authorities, and his citizenship to an American naturalization track.

Willy is as hard to pin down as he is to stop. It’s voyeuristically satisfying having been in on the irony, having known all the time that this unbelievably nice guy was truly blood-hungry. But that sense vanishes when he enters alongside Mary, dancing with embarrassing abandon to high-tempo Mexican pop. How do you square innocent “I ate the Worm” T-shirts with a severed thumb in an evidence bag? Responsibly turning down Graves’s heartfelt appeal to make love doesn’t align with a violent, sadistic soul. Learning that Willy suffers from dissociative identity disorder makes situating culpability—sympathy—even harder.

The play’s karaoke motif reduces identity down to performance, further shallowing out personality. Willy, Mary, Beth, and Posada each visit Hope’s bar, play-acting as musicians and pretending love. “RIO’s” most extreme persona shift occurs when Willy sings a sappy swan song to the bar’s crowd. He reaches forward, crooning, caressing audience members’ hands. Turning away and walking upstage as the outro finishes, he draws his familiar bowie knife. Only this time, he rushes the audience at knifepoint, nearly vaulting over the dividing bannister at the scene’s lights-out, hoarsely vowing to stab everybody.

“RIO” is preoccupied with inconstancy and uncertainty, duplicity and self-assuredness. Even the play’s tonalities are in flux, reading like a sweeter, sillier Cormac McCarthy. In the end, Mary Graves finally provides a counterpoint. Initially adrift and wandering (“I just wanted to get out of the rain!”), she winds up handcuffed to a telephone pole by Officer Posada after informing against Willy. Exposed to the elements, she recalls her husband’s memory, ceases doubting herself, resolves to refuse from now on to beg anybody for love. Her composure and constancy disarms Willy once he finds her. She willfully opens up a quieted heart to him, still offering him a piece of it and her confidence. Her affection subdues Willy’s lethal half.

Willy imagines that he’s drifting down the Rio, towards the Gulf, as he is administered the death penalty. Graves’s steadying memory keeps him from capsizing, keeps him floating smoothly and quells his urge to snap at his executioners. The solidity she represents remains foremost in his fading consciousness. “RIO” concludes in death and darkness: Graves remains alone onstage but she nevertheless reappropriates her opening remark. Her spousal abuse becomes a historical fact and not a handicap, her name is an assertion and not a question mark—she achieves stability and solace within this tale’s western wilderness of sex, slaughter, and off-key singing.

“RIO,” Dream Theatre Company, 556 W. 18th St. Through March 16. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 7pm. $22. (773)552-8616.

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