Spine: ‘Murder Ballad: Liquor and Love, with Child’ by Robert Michael Oliver

There’s nothing like hot sex to get the blood pumping.

There’s nothing like lasting love to swoon the heart.

There’s nothing like a child to turn the world upside down.

And there’s nothing like a threat to all three to make each of us yearn for a happy ending.

Then, throw in an affair and the possibility of murder and a secret girlfriend and a hard rock score and four engaging actor-singers, and you’re got Murder Ballad, conceived by Julia Jordon (book and lyrics), with music and more lyrics by Juliana Nash. It’s now performed at Studio Theatre’s “new” venue.

For our review of Murder Ballad by David Siegelclick here.

As good as the four performers sing us into enchantment, and the lyrics and score bind our hearts to love, and the band plays to blisters, and the direction by David Muse keeps everything all together tightly, what makes Murder Ballad so head-over-heels powerful is this “new” Studio venue.

Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

After getting your hand stamped out under the Studio marquee, you enter the theatre by the alley off P Street; you climb four flights of stairs, passing endless punk signage and graffiti; you slink sideways through the beaded curtain where the bar’s waitress takes you to your seat; the bartender jumps on the counter and bangs the hard wood with his Louisville Slugger, announcing “10 minutes! 10 minutes to show time. Get your drinks now!”

You chat with your table mates, talk about bars, and plays in bars, and DC’s recent obsession with Chekhov parodies or deconstructions, and the price of real estate. The music gets louder as the talking gets louder as the bar fills up.

That’s right: we’re talking bar, low tech, and hardcore.

And we’re not talking stagecraft here, even if a certain amount of verisimilitude is clearly evident. We’re talking full all out BAR, fully loaded and drunk as one of Senator McCain’s oft mentioned sailors.

In other words, the couple playing pool in the center of the room is hitting real balls not knockoffs.

In other words, if Studio wants to strike this set after the show’s extended run closes, first they’ll have to get an eviction notice.

Now, to be sure, theatre in bars is not new, just like liquor in theatre is as old as the God of both, the ecstatically tipsy Dionysus himself wrecking havoc on unsuspecting mortals.

What’s different about Murder Ballad is that this Theatre is the Bar, as in Bar Culture, as in where the liquor flows and the pick-ups are plentiful and the wear and tear on psyche and liver are equally degrading. It’s set in New York but really it’s anywhere USA.

And the “ballad” of the title, well this is definitely a theatrical ballad about lovers’ triangles, the one you see and the ones you don’t see.

You see, everyone has a set of triangles in their lives. And each person’s set intersects with other people’s sets, as in wife/husband/her lover intersects with lover/wife/his lover intersects with husband/wife/his job. Then, when you add a child to the ruckus, you turn everyday triangles into red hot quadrangles.

As any good ballad, it’s sung from start to finish with a few instrumentals thrown in for transitions. So you’ll find no dramatic dialogue where the backstory is fleshed out in meticulous detail for the rational mind.

This is hard rock, not a prim and proper DC show, where men and women in suits and pearls sit in expensive lobbies sipping Chardonnay (though Chardonnay is dispensed at the bar), and then enter the theatre to listen to Janis Joplin without the addictions.

In this bar, the rock is in the gutter, where the rhythms are hard and the pains are as real as the actors can make them, and they make them, up close and personal.

Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Tommar Wilson (Michael). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Tommar Wilson (Michael). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Christine Dyer’s Sara won’t despair on your shoulder, but the hurt in her eyes will feel just like that lover who self-destructed on your way to the altar.

Neither will Tommar Wilson’s Michael plead for his marriage directly into your ear, but you wouldn’t be blamed for giving him an answer.

Nor are Cole Burton’s Tom and his threats of violence aimed at you: they only pass through you on their way to their intended heart.

And Anastacia McCleskey, this tale’s oh-so-unreliable narrator, her rage will make the floor under your seat quake like a heart attack.

Murder Ballad is environmental theatre at its best: it surrounds you, it engrosses you, it leaves you thoroughly filled.

And it’s participatory too: you don’t have any lines to say, but every drink you down, every pretzel you munch, every neighbor you chat up, adds to bar’s scenography.

As your own bar memories bubble up, either from the “good old days” or last night’s 2:00 a.m. roustabout with one night stand, you’ll feel entertained, until as the singers tell you: “It happens to you.”

If it has happened to you, Studio’s brand new bar offers $3 shots after the show, and remains open until closing time, which is a circular way to saying I don’t know when it closes – I just know it remains open.

Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission, but the bar opens early and closes late.


Murder Ballad plays through May 17, 2015 at The Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

John Stoltenberg on Murder Ballad in his column Magic Time!


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