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The Butcher Boy

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Nicholas Barasch (center). (Carol Rosegg)


Francie Brady is an energetic, but ballistic teenager with a seemingly cheeky disposition. But behind the red hair and sparkling eyes lurks a troubled boy who claims: “They were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent.”


The Butcher Boy, a musical now at the Irish Rep, is set in rural Ireland in the 1960s. Based on the acclaimed 1992 novel by Patrick McCabe, which loosely references a 1904 crime that took place in McCabe’s hometown of Clones, County Monaghan, Butcher Boy is the first original musical the company has developed in eight years.


Here, the story is rendered as a hallucinatory production. There are dark themes afoot: domestic abuse, childhood trauma and psychosis, and the repercussions of gossip.


Francie (an excellent Nicholas Barasch) lives in a violent household with an alcoholic father (Scott Stangland) and a miserable mother (Andrea Lynn Green). To escape his troubles, he retreats into the world of sci-fi TV and comics with his best friend Joe (Christian Strange). Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” plays on the large TV screen that’s part of Charlie Corcoran’s set.


But his life is forever changed when snooty Mrs. Nugent ((Michele Ragusa) and her son, Phillip (Daniel Marconi), move into town. Alarmed by Francie’s bullying, she calls the Brady family pigs — and that smear pushes the embryonic sociopath Francie over the edge, unleashing his sadistic side.


Four actors who wear pig masks illustrate his descent into violence. They bring his hallucinatory visions to life. Teddy Trice, Carey Rebecca Brown, Polly McKie and David Baida play the snorting, unnerving pigs. Kat C. Zhou ups the effects with haunting red lighting at the height of Francie's frenzies.


It’s a challenge to transform dark subject matter into a musical, but Asher Muldoon, 23, responsible for the book, music and lyrics, gives it a solid shot. And he often succeeds at creating an unnerving, provocative show, aided by a strong cast and Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction.


However, an especially difficult element in The Butcher Boy is not sustaining a consistent tone — which veers between realism and violent fantasy. And while some of the ballads move the story line, other songs do not. What begins innocently eventually dives into darker terrain. Francie’s demons are both his nightmares and a horrifying stab at social commentary.


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(l-r) Nicholas Barasch, Michele Ragusa and Daniel Marconi (Carol Rosegg)


In part, The Butcher Boy is also a sad reminder of a society unable to address either mental illness or the social issues that create ongoing misery. As Francie becomes more alienated and estranged from family and friends, his madness turns dangerous. And aside from his kinship with Joe, there is little joy in his life.


Francie looks up to his Uncle Alo (Joe Cassidy), whose relationship with his ex-girlfriend Mary (Kerry Conte) has a tender sadness all its own. Happiness, it appears, eludes all the Bradys.


Given the abundance of misery may explain why Muldoon eliminated some story points in the book, such as the sexual abuse Francie endures from a priest. Francie has so many horrible experiences, his gruesome actions can sometimes seem inevitable. At some point, he’s going to snap. And when he gets a job with a butcher, who teaches him how to kill young piglets, the sense of foreshadowing is complete.


The Butcher Boy tackles serious subjects — and the Irish Rep is to be lauded for its novel approach to McCabe’s book. It’s a haunting production. Plus, it will be interesting to see Muldoon’s future efforts. He’s off to an impressive start.


The Butcher Boy, The Irish Rep, 132 West 22 St.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission