FRINGE 2019 CRITIC'S PICK: 'Descent: A Murder Ballad'

Hannah Gregory's "Descent: A Murder Ballad" is an accomplished, entertaining theatrical piece of storytelling

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click to enlarge "Descent: A Murder Ballad" - Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
"Descent: A Murder Ballad"

The tradition of the murder ballad has a long history: A tragic story of an impulsive crime and its repercussions, told through songs, has existed for centuries. Descent, a Fringe production at Know Theatre, is a fully staged musical piece. It's a moody, gothic tale with seven songs performed by a cast of eight actors and musicians. The book, lyrics and music are by theater artist Hannah Gregory, who performs as the feisty singing narrator, intently watching as the action slips back and forth in time.

Staged by Cincinnati Shakespeare actor Caitlin McWethy, Descent’s time shifts are designated by creative lighting. When a scene is washed in warm light, we’re watching events prior to a passionate crime; a switch to pale blue pushes us to its aftermath. Annie (Tess Talbot) and Paul (Wes Carman) are a young couple happily expecting a child. They are new residents of a “pastoral town,” Shady Grove, peopled by nosy neighbors — Ruby (A.J. Baldwin) and Vada (Hannah Jones-Diaz) — and an off-kilter, top-hat wearing butcher (Dylan Shelton). Plagued by nightmares, Annie is anxious about the future; hard-working Paul is committed to loving her.

As the lighting cools, we see a hardened Annie on a lonesome train ride running from some tragic deed. She’s accosted by brutish Abraham (Charlie Roetting) and befriended by pixyish Mabel (Ellyn Broderick). Gregory’s haunting songs slowly reveal the details leading up to and spiraling away from Annie’s crime. Roetting plays poignant guitar melodies; Carman handles a mournful cello. Everyone sings as a chorus, and several add percussive, thumping beats that tighten the tale’s tension.

Gregory received an “artist enrichment” grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and used it to amplify a set of songs she composed in 2015 into this full-fledged theatrical production, getting its premiere during the Fringe. It’s an unusual murder ballad, placing a woman in the central role of a female vigilante, her sad, violent actions driven by stress and misunderstanding.

In addition to the lighting variations, hand-held lights create a romantic stellar constellation and a mysterious well. Every technical and sonic element adds to the haunting denouement of Annie’s descent from happiness to misery. Gregory’s vocal performance, colored with her Kentucky twang and punctuated with several percussive devices (a rattling “vibraslap”), a whooshing crank and a train whistle, artfully weaves together the pieces of the tale.

Annie’s evolution from a sweet wife through grief and sadness to a cold killer is gripping, and all the sadder as frustrated Paul helplessly watches their marriage deteriorate and spiral out of control. Broderick’s puckish innocence provides a bit of comic relief, as does Baldwin’s intrusive jollity, not to mention her disturbing premonitions that foreshadow the inevitable tragedy.

Descent: A Murder Ballad is an accomplished, entertaining theatrical piece of storytelling. The opening night performance was sold-out, and it’s likely that this production will be popular. Get a ticket while you can.

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 15. Find showtimes, tickets and more info here. Check out more reviews from our CityBeat team here

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