Review: "Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical" Is Furious Fun

Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical

Written by Eve Blackwater

Directed by Michael Hagins

Presented at the wild project

195 E 3rd St., Manhattan, NYC

April 6-19, 2024

L to R: Jeannie Skelly, Eve Blackwater, Kendra MacDevitt. Photo by Adrian Buckmaster.
The 1890s-set Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical positions itself at a fertile crossing of several cultural currents, marrying–perhaps a bit of a loaded term here–historically and socially conscious theater with a dark folk scene including bands such as Bridge City Sinners and, more appositely here, American Murder Song and with the recent concept of the "Good for Her" subgenre, which itself emerged in the wake of #MeToo movement. The Brokeneck Girls of the title are a folk noir band based in NYC, comprising vocalists Eve Blackwater, who also wrote The Murder Ballad Musical, on guitar; Kendra Macdevitt on fiddle; and Jeannie Skully on banjo; and, within the world of the play, they function as the house band for a tavern in which a trio of women, one the proprietor, gradually commiserate and discover one another's secrets during a lockdown. The show's defiantly comic approach to patriarchal cruelty, racism, and women's veiled rage could be seen to parallel the way in which a number of the ballads performed in the show set tales of violence, often against women, to delicate or upbeat music, a distancing that the production actively subverts. Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical is part of the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival, which includes 46 shows spread over multiple venues and which gives 100% of the proceeds from ticket sales to the artists.

Olivia Whicheloe. Photo by Miguel Garzon Martinez
The abovementioned tavern, Tofana's, is run by Babs (Olivia Whicheloe), who wears a pistol as she pours whisky. She receives some unexpected patronage one morning from Lady Arlin (Alexandria Thomas), wife of the mayor, who is looking to escape her domestic space for a time. In the face of skepticism as to her reason for being upset, Lady Arlin notes early on that her comfortable lifestyle is predicated on dependance on her husband and that she doesn't get to spend time with other women. Soon, she has no choice but to do so, as the Sheriff (Emily Ross) arrives (wearing pants in a time when this was still illegal for women in some states) and institutes a lockdown because of an ostensibly dangerous man in the area (i.e., a Robin Hood-esque Black man), leaving the tavern an entirely female space–the band, who, Babs explains, arrived two years ago and never left due to the high rate of murders providing a steady stream of new ballads, is locked in as well–until the sheriff says otherwise.

The play emphasizes the role of folk music as recording and transmitting news–as, in other words, a kind of cultural repository. The characters' observations about the patterns revealed in this repository range from the more purely humorous, like noting the high percentage of Williams in murder ballads, to more pointed ones such as that men's murders are not romanticized in song in the way that women's are, a claim that could doubtless be expanded to much popular culture. The majority of the songs woven into the play through the conceit of their recording local events are traditional ballads, with a few new songs written by one or more of the Brokeneck Girls, including the jocular "Animal Control" and the haunting "Crybaby Creek." Interestingly, among a slate of songs mostly about murder, the traditional "Knoxville Girl," written in first-person voice, comes across as particularly jarring–maybe because a lot of murder ballads feature drownings, as the play wryly points out, or single thrusts of a knife to the heart, not the rather graphically described bludgeoning recounted in this song in combination with the nearly celebratory "hell yeah" of its chorus. The repetition of the phrase "hell yeah" in the show's last song–another original, "Guilia Tofana," named for a woman who lived in 17th-century Italy–perhaps acts as a subtle counterbalance. 

While gendered oppression is at the forefront of the production's concerns, The Murder Ballad Musical takes an intersectional approach, linking such oppression to race and class. Lady Arlin, for example, is insulated to a great extent by her wealth, but her "dusky" skin raises questions for the other women and has the potential to negate any status that she possesses. Meanwhile, a throughline about birds as witnesses and news-bringers symbolically links the play's women to everything from, in the band's case, the Furies of Greek mythology to Susan Glaspell's Trifles, in which a dead bird and a murder investigation intersect. Whicheloe is a standout among strong performances all around, and over the course of The Murder Ballad Musical, Babs, Lady Arlin, and the Sheriff come to share both how they (and other women) have been wronged and how they have enacted retribution, not always within the law. After all, playing dumb and helpless (i.e., using normative gender expectations as a shield), which Babs teaches the others, can't always be the solution. And before the end, the play explodes another binary, beyond sex and gender, in a wonderfully unexpected plot development that we won't spoil here. With a cathartic blend of light and dark and terrific score, the only disappointing part of Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical comes when we all have to leave Tofana's.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

More from the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival:

News: FRIGID New York Announces Schedule of Performances for New York City Fringe Festival, April 3-21

Review: “Conversations with My Divorce Attorney,” or All My Little Words

Review: "Climate Fables: Debating Extinction" Offers a Vivid Fairy Tale for the End Times

Review: "Solitary" Centers the Humanity of the Dehumanized

Review: Heroes and Villains Alike Are "A Little Less Than Kind" in Reimagined "Hamlet"


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