by John Stoltenberg
The fourth-floor black box at Studio Theatre has housed some extraordinary original storytelling. Recent productions of Terminus and Moth leap to mind. The space, called Stage 4, seems like a magnet for edgy stories that cannot be wrapped up in sentimental ribbons. Even when those stories are packaged as hugely enjoyable musicals (I’m remembering Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), whatever is disturbing, disruptive, or transgressive at the narrative core remains unadorned and transparent—or at least in plain enough view so you can see it if you want.
The unspoken subtext at that venue seems to be: If you want only to be entertained, your brainpan coddled, go elsewhere. If you want storytelling with grit and guts, stick around. All of which is coming back to me as I ponder what to make of Murder Ballad.
The whole evening is, hands down, one of the most ingeniously immersive experiences I can imagine having in a theater. The space looks, feels, and sounds like an actual dive bar, with bartenders and real booze. Except for stage lighting overhead and a tucked-away sound and light booth (which you don’t notice at first), the place doesn’t resemble a theater at all. The night I walked in, I was completely disoriented. I didn’t recognize it as a space I’d been in before. The verisimilitude achieved by the design and production team is simply stunning, and no raves can do it justice. Shoutouts to Production Designer Brian MacDevitt, Set Director Andrew Cohen, and Lighting Director Andrew Cissna. On any list of DC happening hot spots, what they’ve done to the fourth four at Studio should be rated “Don’t even think of skipping this one.”
Add to that the unmissable performances: four superb actor-singers (Christine Dwyer as Sara, Anastacia McCleskey as Narrator, Cole Burden as Tom, and Tommar Wilson as Michael) who during the sung-through show move about among the audience, stand on the bar and pool table, and step onto an endstage where there’s a rockin’ band (Yusef Chisholm on bass, Darren R. Cohen on keyboard, Logan Seith on drums, Ben Young on guitar). Shining musical talents one and all, they have been burnished to a shimmering luster by Director David Muse, Music Director Darren R. Cohen, Sound Designer Ryan Rumery, and Movement Director Nancy Bannon.
The material itself, the musical Murder Ballad, tells a gritty and gutsy story, ultimately a brutal one, but presented as what the script itself calls an entertainment wrapped in a bow. The creation of Julia Jordan, who conceived it and wrote book and lyrics, and Juliana Nash, who wrote music and lyrics, Murder Ballad was not written to be performed in a bar; that appears to be Muse’s inspiration, premised on the fact that in the text one of the characters, Tom, is a bartender then a bar owner, and the precedent of a similarly staged production he saw in New York. Nor were the four characters in Murder Ballad identified in the script except by name, meaning that the casting at Studio has been what’s called colorblind (not a term I’m fond of, but I know none better). This has the worthy effect of focusing our attention—as Dr. King urged—on content of character.
Now about the story, which if you follow it, takes some very troubling turns, even before there’s a murder. The show as much as promises there will be one. In the Narrator’s first song she sings of “true love gone awry”:
There’s always a killer
So logic’ly someone has to die.
We sing the murder ballad’s warning,
There but for the grace of God go I.
And when the payoff comes it packs a wallop. The deed is done bloodily with a baseball bat that is displayed early on (yup, the Playwriting 101 alert: This weapon will come lethally into play). You won’t guess who kills and who dies, though, and I’m not going to tell you. But the script’s canny convergence of character arcs that become the tense windup to the murder will make you think it could be anyone.
What struck me during the show was that there are aspects of the story’s windup that are more unsettling than the homicidal finish. The murder itself goes by rather quickly and is followed by a flip, upbeat finale during which the three surviving characters sing:
The thrill of the kill
Romance, blood, calamity.
Long as it don’t happen to you.
You know you want it.
You wanted us to.
Lusted for murder,
Hope we satisfied you.
Actually I wasn’t satisfied. My mind was still processing the story. In brief, it’s this: The central character, Sara, has had a hot fling with Tom, whom she walked out on. She meets Michael and falls aggressively in lust. (This female protagonist was clearly at the head of her Sexual Agency class.) Michael is a straight-up, responsible guy. They have a child. Michael is a good provider and a good father. Sara, it would seem, has a Perfect Husband and a Perfect Home Life. Trouble comes when Sara runs into Tom and their lust resumes. Michael, whose character has scruples (in marked contrast to Sara and Tom), begins to catch on in a catchy tune called “Little by Little”:
Now little by little
I see what’s goin’ on.
Yeah little by little
I see that somethin’s wrong
Sara’s choices, which began as highly questionable when she has an affair with Tom and betrays Michael’s trust, devolve into reprehensible, when her dalliance with Tom turns the character into a bad mom. At one point Sara neglects to pick up Michael’s and Sara’s daughter, Frankie. Michael, the play’s moral rudder as Sara is off rutting, confronts her:
Tell me was Tommy inside you,
When you forgot Frankie, yesterday?
Tomcat got your tongue, got nothing to say?
What kind of mother are you?
And in that stinging lyric is summed up what is most problematic about Murder Ballad: The central character, Sara, is utterly unsympathetic. Never mind all the culture’s misogynist slang for loose women who sleep around without shame, this female character, created by two women, has the ethics of a flea.
Could it be that the authors have intentionally created a character so unlikeable that we are led to believe she’s going to be the murder victim and has it coming? Or is the character fatally flawed as dramatic construction—a vacuum in the play where a fully rounded main character should be?
The thing is, the enormously entertaining packaging of Murder Ballad—the setting, the songs, the performances—has the effect of concealing what at the work’s core is a gritty, gutsy, perturbing, and troubling narrative. And it’s exactly at that core that one can find the raw, unnerving, and smartly executed kind of theater one can always expect on Studio’s fourth floor.