Theater archives

Murder Ballad and The Weir Go Beyond the Grave; John Turturro Plays House at BAM


Theaters are haunted places. Specters are said to lurk in dressing rooms, phantoms in the fly space. Even the most unsuperstitious houses leave ghost lights burning. Earlier productions haunt each new revival and new plays must shake off the wraiths of the writer’s imagining that crowd the script. Hamlet’s ghost has plenty of competition.

Take Murder Ballad, Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s lively rock musical in which four characters reenact a brutal killing. The show, which transferred to the Union Square Theatre after an earlier run at Manhattan Theatre Club, ends as it began, with the dead returned to life to play their pulp tragedy anew. “There’s always a killer,” sing the cast in the opening number. “So logic’ly someone has to die.” It takes nearly the whole of the 80-minute running time to discover who will shuffle off this mortal coil.

Director Trip Cullman sets the play in a mock-up of a sleazy bar (courtesy designer Mark Wendland) owned by Will Swenson’s Tom. Characters like Tom’s ex and her new husband weave among tables and pound drinks as they sing. The writing and design overstress grit and sex, as in lyrics like “a kiss like a mouth tattoo” and the see-through blouse foisted on Rebecca Naomi Jones’s narrator. Jones would look alluring covered by a burqa, so this seems overkill. Yet Cullman keeps the action specific, the emotions grounded.

The score could use fewer reprises, even if this structure emphasizes the repetitive nature of violence, but the cast, which also features John Ellison Conlee and Caissie Levy (in a role originated by Karen Olivo), sing it seductively and expertly, while the live band keeps the energy high. The show seems more of an event than in its previous staging, even if the sound is somewhat muddier. But the body count remains the same.

There is less murder, comparable imbibing, and greater emotional heft in The Weir, Ciarán O’Reilly’s gracefully understated revival of Conor McPherson’s 1997 drama at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Set in a cozy pub somewhere in rural Ireland, it concerns a quartet of locals and one newcomer who gather on a chilly evening to down pints and swap ghost stories. “The area’s steeped in old folklore,” smoothie Finbar (Sean Gormley) tells Dublin émigrée Valerie (Tessa Klein).

McPherson had distinguished himself as a writer of monologues, and The Weir represents a successful attempt to put characters into conversation. As the evening darkens and the wind wuthers outside, the men delight in trading spooky tales of fairies, frights, and the unquiet dead. Then Tessa offers a supernatural story of her own, one designed to neither terrify nor titillate, but to reveal the deep grief that consumes her.

A few of the men rush to dismiss or explain away her account, but Jack (Dan Butler), the bar’s elder, and Brendan (Billy Carter), its owner, offer compassion instead. Quietly, gently, they accept the inexplicable as a part of life. As Jack says, “We’ll all be ghosts soon enough.”

Henrik Ibsen doesn’t deserve his prudish reputation. Those 19th-century Norwegian costumes may appear stiff and starched; the people inside them aren’t. Beneath the waistcoats and corsetry lurk adultery, incest, torture, murder, suicide, and a surplus of deeply weird psychosexual content.

Witness The Master Builder, an 1892 drama, now revived at BAM. It concerns Halvard Solness (John Turturro), a celebrated draftsman who exerts a nearly mesmeric effect on the women in his life, with the significant exception of his tormented wife, Aline (the pleasantly acerbic Katherine Borowitz, married to Turturro).

Halvard suspends the seduction of his apprentice’s fiancée when a mysterious young woman, Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt), arrives. Hilde reveals that Halvard entranced her (or, if you prefer, sexually assaulted her) when she was just 13. A decade on, she has come to offer him her love and lissome figure.

But before she’ll put out, she demands Halvard prove his might by scaling the tower of his latest construction. It is a mark of great restraint that designer Santo Loquasto somehow resisted painting this spire Viagra blue. It is instead a virile red. If you like your studies of masculine anguish heavy on the phallic symbols, this is the show for you.

The Master Builder is one of Ibsen’s more elliptical and confounding works—part characterological excavation, part symbolist fable, part melodrama. It is strenuously serious in a way that keeps threatening to swerve into comedy. And in the character of Hilde, Ibsen authored the archetype of the manic pixie dream girl (she compares herself to a wild bird and speaks often about her underwear) that would go on to inform a century of rom-coms.

Though the scenes run on skillfully enough and the two hours pass briskly, a play like this necessitates a strong directorial vision. Andrei Belgrader doesn’t exactly supply one. It also demands fully realized characters, which never quite emerge.

Turturro, a fierce and volatile actor, is absorbing, yet he rarely seems to connect with his scene partners. He seems particularly wary of Schmidt, who portrays Hilde as a creature of sexual appetite, incapable of keeping her thighs together. The gestures are there, but the psychology informing them seems lacking. Sure, the stage lights are on, but is anyone really home?