Immersive settings are the hottest trend in theatre right now. Every other production is set in a converted loft, warehouse, or whatever. Now owners of more traditional spaces are trying to capture that feeling in their black box or proscenium theatres. Such is the case with Studio Theatre’s production of the musical Murder Ballad, playing in Washington, D.C.
The audience for this show doesn’t get to loll about in Studio’s glassy lobby or atrium before the show — no, they walk down an alleyway (fret not, this part of NW D.C. isn’t sketchy any more) and up a few flights of industrial stairs to the theatre’s 2ndStage space, which has been transformed into a bar that intends to be seedy (bat-wielding bartender and all), though the prices for the cocktails make it clear this is a bogey affair.
Despite the size of the space (Studio’s buildings were factories back in the day, if you like your immersive theatre to come full-circle), there’s a somewhat cramped feeling to the whole affair, like the audience is practically sitting on top of each other at times. This sentiment is only magnified once the show starts. As the four actors wind their ways about the space, they act and sing uncomfortably close to their voyeurs. Every detail of their performance is writ large, mere inches from the audiences’ faces.
It’s hard to stand up to that kind of scrutiny, but the cast tries. The story follows Sara (Christine Dwyer), an edgy young woman who rebounds from her angry ex (Cole Burden) with sensitive poet, Michael (Tommar Wilson). Narrator Anastacia McCleskey guides the audience through the show.
The book of the show by Julia Jordan is paper-thin, with characters who are more archetypes than people. The lyrics (by Jordan and Juliana Nash) aren’t much better, endlessly repeating the same concepts. Dwyer bears the brunt of the source material, forced to swing wildly between illogical choices set out for her character, Sara, but it’s hard to make sense of such an insensible character. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wilson and Burden are given so little to work with dramatically that all they seem to do is march about in circles, proclaiming, “I’m the good guy!” or “I’m the bad guy!”
In the end, it’s McCleskey’s mysterious balladeer who steals the show. Her character is purposefully vague and McCleskey clearly delights in the ambiguity, toying with the audience mercilessly. That spirit is sadly absent from most of the show, except for the rousing finale — a tongue-in-check number that turns the mirror back onto the audience. The real tragedy of Murder Ballad is that this spirit doesn’t pervade the whole show.
Murder Ballad is playing at Studio Theatre, Washington D.C. until 31 May. For more information and tickets, see the Studio Theatre website. Photo by Vithaya Phongsavan.