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For ‘Murder Ballad,’ Studio Theatre turns into a killer dive bar

From left, Anastacia McCleskey, Cole Burden, Christine Dwyer and Tommar Wilson star in “Murder Ballad.” (Teddy Wolff)
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Murder mysteries are more fun when you feel like you’re part of the action, so Studio Theatre went all-out to create an immersive experience for the steamy rock opera “Murder Ballad.”

Come to the show, which opens Wednesday, and a bouncer will check your ID, stamp your hand and lead you through an alley to Studio’s back door. Walk up four flights of cement stairs and you’ll step into what could be Black Cat’s grunge-free cousin, complete with exposed brick, graffiti and wheat-pasted band posters.

“We’ll do anything we can to make you feel like you’re in a bar and not in a theater,” says Studio artistic director David Muse, who is also the play’s director.

In fact, the theater converted its fourth-floor stage into a full bar, where — as you learn at the beginning of the sung-through musical — a murder will happen.

“But you don’t know who and you don’t know how,” Muse says. “That turns scenes into real suspense moments.”
“Murder Ballad,” which opened off-Broadway in 2012, is about a woman named Sara (Christine Dwyer) who feels stifled by her stable life on the Upper West Side with her husband and daughter. She yearns for Tom (Cole Burden), a scorching hot, broken bad boy from her past. When she sparks things up with the old flame, Sara becomes tortured by — but addicted to — her secret lover. All the while, the omniscient, soulful Narrator (Anastacia McCleskey) reminds onlookers that “someone has to die.”

With explosive music by Juliana Nash (singer of ’90s band Talking to Animals), the show comes off like a stripped-down version of “Rent” with the lustful agony of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”

“When the live band comes out, it just feels like a regular club,” Muse says. “And then the musical happens all around you.”
The show is staged cabaret-style, with sex scenes and hand-to-hand fights occurring within swinging distance of the tables where the audience sits, against a jukebox or on a pool table.

“It’s a very physical play,” Muse says. “The actors are all over each other all the time. It’s about passion and specifically about wanting things you’re not supposed to have — which is totally sexy.”

Just remember what the narrator tells the audience at the beginning: “Trust no one.”

Don’t let the fun die

The “Murder Ballad” bar opens for one hour before every show. If the bartenders look familiar, it’s because they tend bar at 14th Street watering holes like Logan Tavern and Black Jack. On Fridays and Saturdays during the play’s run, you can keep the party going after the performance. Attendees with a hand stamp or playbill get food and drink specials at Posto, Black Whiskey and Drafting Table.

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; Wed. through May 10, various times, $20-$80.

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