Pinky Swear Productions’ quirky cabarets are perennial Capital Fringe favorites, and rightly so. They reliably deliver engaging productions with strong ensemble performances, intriguing themes, and narrative elements of the whimsical and the bizarre.
Over Her Dead Body continues in this tradition, but it’s also a little different — darker, more narratively compelling. It’s not just an exploration of a fascinating song form, the American murder ballad; it’s also a deeply affecting statement on the past and present of violence against women. It’s my favorite of the Pinky Swear musical-revue-style shows that I’ve seen, and an impressive realization of the form’s potential.
We open on the weekly radio broadcast of “Bluegrass Benediction,” a folksy live music program that’s trying something new this week: a musical “seance” to explore the traditional murder ballad. The four regular singers (Karen Lange, Rebecca Speas, Brittany Alyse Willis, and James Finley as “Willie,” the group’s token male) are joined by “new girl” Emma (Rebecca Phillips), who turns out to be more than she seems.
The women start with a haunting, luscious, four-part a cappella rendition of “Little Sparrow” — just a little mic check before the show starts, ain’t no thing. The performers breezily joke and banter amongst themselves before and between musical numbers; they have fun together, and this gig is old hat by now.
Over Her Dead Body
Produced by Pinky Swear Productions
Details and tickets
But like the murder ballads themselves, the sunny surface of the “Bluegrass Benediction” gives way to something darker. The tuneful loveliness of the songs becomes downright unnerving when you pay attention to the lyrics, and Over Her Dead Body doesn’t let you look away from that. Woman after ill-fated woman ends up brutally murdered in one way or another, usually at the hands of an angry man. The performers act out the scenes of violence in surreal vignettes that feel like something between a performance and a memory. The singers become the characters they’re portraying for a little while, and you get the sense that those characters stick around even after the song ends — or maybe they’ve always been there.
At one point, there’s a hilarious send-up of the most common tropes in the songs in the form of 10 tips to avoid getting killed in a murder ballad: don’t be a woman, don’t accept a marriage proposal, don’t reject a marriage proposal, stay away from rivers. The scenes accompanying the songs are entertaining and often funny, but there’s always a serious point behind the whimsy. I found myself thinking that our wholesome prairie forefathers had to be some sick fucks to write this kind of stuff, and to keep writing it over and over. And what does it say about us that the songs have stayed popular for so long?
The musical numbers are spirited and well-sung, and backed by a wonderful bluegrass house band called Dead Man’s Hollow (Mike Clayberg on guitar, Marcy Cochran on fiddle, Caryn Fox on mandolin, Belinda Hardesty on banjo and Jared Creason on bass).
Lange is the anchor of the show with a strong performance as the sardonically maternal Ava. Finley is a versatile joy to watch as he cycles through the show’s many different “Willies” and male archetypes, easily shifting from the aw-shucks boy next door to the menacing, violent lover. Phillips is a compelling and vulnerable presence with a lovely, clear folk voice, and Speas and Willis round out the gang with great vocals and comic relief.
Over Her Dead Body shows us what it really means when we romanticize violence. It’s both entertaining and important, and haunting in the best possible way.
Over Her Dead Body . Written by John Bavoso, Karen Lange, Brittany Alyse Willis, Seth Alcorn, Ryan Maxwell, Kenny Neal . Directed by Ryan Maxwell . Starring James Finley, Karen Lange, Rebecca Phillips, Rebecca Speas, Brittany Alyse Willis, and Dead Men’s Hollow . Sound Design by Kenny Neal . Lighting Design by Colin Dieck . Stage and Production Manager: Laura Wood . Produced by Pinky Swear Productions . Reviewed by Emily Crockett.