Whatever else you might think about Murder Ballads: A Tribute to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, you have to congratulate Jobsite Theater for having the daring to produce it. And why shouldn't there be an evening of drama structured like a CD? After all, we're willing to listen to 15 different songs by Springsteen or Radiohead and find the experience complete and satisfying.
As for an album of theater, well, playwrights as diverse as A. R. Gurney (The Dining Room) and David Ives (All in the Timing) have shown that it can work. And if the folks over at Jobsite take the concept one step further — by actually using an existing rock album (by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) as the springboard for a night of theater — they deserve our praise for their chutzpah. This is the sort of innovation that keeps theater stimulating, unpredictable and potentially revelatory. When it works, it can open up new realms of artistic experience; and when it doesn't, it can still give us the occasional glimpse of something extraordinary.
Having said all this, I now have to admit that Murder Ballads is far from a satisfying experience. Still, it has its powerful moments, moments of weird and unexpected beauty. Part of the credit goes to Cave's strangely haunting music, played onstage by Kevin Spooner or over the P.A. system.
The rest of the credit has to go to the Jobsite ensemble, which brings an air of morbid unity, of camaraderie in horror to all these tales of murder, mayhem and madness. I've seen many of these same actors on stage together in the past, but this is the most unified they've ever seemed, as if they all shared the same dire secret.
Yes, most of the sketches here are shallow and melodramatic; and some of the dancing fails to ignite the imagination. But one still comes away from the show disturbed and a little dizzy, affected by Cave's music and by the dark consistency of the acting. That may not be enough to make the "album" a winner; but it's still an accomplishment. There's more to this show than its parts.
Act One is the weaker of the two acts of Murder Ballads. It begins with "Song of Joy," which, its title notwithstanding, is about misery and death ("Joy had been bound with electrical tape/ In her mouth a gag/ She'd been stabbed repeatedly/ And stuffed into a sleeping bag"). Spooner's singing is chilling, but the dance that the rest of the cast engages in seems incompletely imagined and generally simplistic.
"Stagger Lee" follows, and once again the dancing is unconvincing. But this time directors David M. Jenkins and Chris Holcom join Spooner up on the bandstand — without noticeably improving the song's delivery.
"Henry Lee," the short play that follows, is the first of the evening's dramas, and a good example of what's to follow. Written by Christen Petitt, it's about a man (Matt Lunsford) who wakes up one morning in the bed of a young woman (Leah LoSchiavo) whom he hardly remembers. When he confesses to her that he already has a girlfriend and that he'd better be going, she counters with oral sex. But while she's performing, she draws a knife and stabs him, finally leaving his dead body as she goes off to have breakfast. "Good thing we've got that old well in the back yard," she says, in case we were wondering what's to come after toast and jelly.
The next sketch, "The Curse of Millhaven," is the longest of the show and the least impressive. Written by Neil Gobioff and Shawn Paonessa, it's about two men and a woman (Jason Evans, Mark Trent and Katrina Stevenson) being interrogated by a detective (David C. Baker) on the subject of a grisly murder. Everyone, it seems, wants to confess to the crime, which never has any reality for the audience, and which the detective seems to have no flair for solving. When, at the end, one of the characters is seen in what appears to be an insane asylum, it hardly matters to the audience. We don't believe in these characters and we don't care about their fate.
Fortunately, the show improves after intermission. The first segment of Act Two is "The Kindness of Strangers," shown to us on video. This is the story of Mary Bellows, who leaves Arkansas in order "to see the deep blue sea," and who's killed by a man she meets along the way. Joe Popp has written new music for Cave's lyrics in this piece and the combination works well. The acting in the video (by Popp, Jaime Holguin and Shannon Kelly) is more than adequate. But the problem here is that the video does little more than illustrate the song, which is quite powerful enough on its own.
The next dance, "Where the Wild Roses Grow," is a touching pas de deux choreographed by Mark Trent, in which a man and a woman attract and repel each other.
Perhaps the best acting of the evening is in the sketch that follows, Stevenson's "Crow Jane," about a woman who kills the men who raped her. Stevenson's not only the writer here but also the central performer, and her description of Jane's rape is more emotionally powerful then anything else in the show.
There's one more short drama — "Harold's Been Sick" by Steve Patterson — in which an out-of sorts townie shoots the biker who's harassing him. And then the ensemble joins in Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End" — a rather lovely suggestion that what we've witnessed isn't all there is — and Murder Ballads is over.
Does it add up? Not in a conventional way. But holding it all together is Cave's mesmerizing music and the shared sense of purpose that seems to animate the actors. As they glower and dance their way around Brian Smallheer's set — half saloon, half bandstand — they communicate warning, danger, raw nerves and bloodshed. There's a whole worldview in Murder Ballads, and it's gloomy and worrisome and expressed between the lines of every song and every bit of dialogue. Is this good theater? Not often enough. But even with its failings, it's finally moving, impressive.
All right, I admit it: It's full of flaws. But still there's something remarkable about Murder Ballads.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.