Alibi V.24 No.46 • Nov 12-18, 2015 

Culture Shock

The Proximity of Passion and Death

Her Murder Ballad explores where sensuality and violence intersect

Katy Houska and Hannah Kauffmann
Actresses Katy Houska and Hannah Kauffmann of “Her Murder Ballad”.
Dahveed Torres

Four women stand on the raised stage at Tricklock Company, blindfolded, in white jumpsuits, in near darkness amid attentive silence. With a gasp, one of the actresses lurches forward, reaching for another who narrowly evades her grasp. The game continues like this as the hunter and the hunted move blindly, attuned to sound and vibration over sight. The game is called “vampire” and provides a eerie preface to the content of Her Murder Ballad, an ambitious play from the ever-experimental Tricklock troupe that confronts the viewer with a collage of disjointed narratives that offer no easy morals or meanings.

“We want people to have their guts wake up and react to what they're seeing on the stage,” said Elsa Menéndez, who directed the play along with Alex Knight, “and for that reaction to create an opportunity for reflection and thought.” The experience created in the show is one that asks the audience to dismiss the habit of following a linear story and submit to a more visceral, fragmented collection of scenes that incorporate dance, song, dialogue and movement. “We want emotions first,” said Knight, “feel it, then figure it out later.”

Her Murder Ballad explores the tradition of the murder ballad in folk and country music and the corridos of Latin America. These tales typically examine the details of a murder in song, the grim subject matter accompanied with lighthearted, listenable melodies. On the whole, these songs are about women killed by their lovers for trespasses outside of what is acceptable to society at large. More often than not in these songs women occupy a restricted or even silent role and their sexuality is punished. Take for example, the Appalachian tune “Tom Dooley” which is featured in Her Murder Ballad. In this song, a complicated love triangle turns bitter when one of the women, who is very possibly pregnant, is stabbed to death on a mountaintop. Her true killer is never known for certain. Songs like this one indicate a strong adherence to traditional notions of morality in murder ballads.

“These songs are artifacts of our collective attitudes around women,” said playwright Idris Goodwin, who co-wrote the play with the core members of Tricklock, “I think this piece is interested in what remains. What of these songs still lingers today.” In Her Murder Ballad, the traditional narrative of women falling victim to violence at the hand of their lover is subverted, and instead we are largely presented with the tales of women who commit violent acts. “We're looking at the whole conversation around how women are glamorized as victims of violence and also as the perpetrators of violence,” Menéndez said, “in the show itself we're pushing at the limits of what people expect.”

Even the structure challenges the viewer. The directors describe the performance as a “collage” with some stories having clear threads followed through to a conclusion, and others left unresolved. “We're presenting hard questions in an interesting way,” said Knight. The incorporation of movement, song, drawn images and chorus helps viewers find an element that resonates with them, facilitating the discovery of a common vocabulary to talk about issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. We're not presented with a clear script for our confusion, instead we're asked to understand the stories in a more visceral way. “What we're talking about is a complicated and layered experience, that's reflected in the structure of the play,” as Menéndez puts it.

The movement of bodies on stage reads like poetry in Her Murder Ballad. The actresses use staccato movements to elevate tension at key moments, or at other times move with immense fluidity, mimicking the water in which a victim has drowned. “There's nothing like being in a room with bodies moving intently as you sit still,” said Menéndez, “bringing our stories into our bodies reawakens other parts of our intelligence.” Bodies are elemental to the play, not just because movement creates tension here, but because bodies—female bodies specifically—are the jumping off point to explore the questions raised when we re-imagine and retell versions of the murder ballad.

“How does sensuality turn violent, how does violence turn sensual?” asked Menéndez before pausing and adding, “that's really hard to explore.” “It's about violence and passion and the extreme versions of those things we always feel,” Knight expounded. And perhaps the play suggests that some seemingly opposite emotions lie closer to one another on that spectrum than we usually suspect—that the passion that allows us to love is the same passion that allows us to kill. The play also raises questions about the perception of women in society, specifically regarding violence against women and violence committed by women and how our culture consumes those narratives. “Explorations into violence against females and the internalized oppression of women are necessary—the struggle for equality continues and part of how we get there is understanding. Theater helps us do that,” said Goodwin.

Lose some sleep, start a dialogue and ask some tough questions of your own by catching Her Murder Ballad before it closes this weekend at Tricklock Company, because as Knight said, “it's often the hard stuff that ends up being good for you.”

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