Content Warning: Gun Violence
Americana is a play about gun violence in the United States, except when it isn’t, when it’s actually also a piece about the lyricality and provenance of the Murder Ballad. Oh, and also it’s a piece of meta-theatre, analysing the theatrical form from the ground up with a plot twist which is really quite interesting to watch unfurl. Overall, it’s a piece of gig theatre that keeps you completely captivated, wondering what on Earth kind of direction it’s going to go. A poignant piece with a cutting message, you can’t help but wonder if it slightly over-extends itself.
The structure of Americana is not immediately apparent on arrival. A Master of Ceremonies type character begins to orchestrate a chorus of American school children in a deeply sardonic song about the limited ‘Freedom’ offered in America. We introduce early on the theme of guns, and the faux candles which are littered around the edge of the stage lie as a reminder of victims of gun violence.
A murder ballad describes the events leading up to and often including a killing. The chorus are more central to the piece in this regard than you expect. This includes the band, which is made up of a variety of instruments including the banjo and double bass. The music stretches across a range of genres featuring blues and country primarily, and is performed with a stunning sense of verve and style. Slightly confusingly, despite having a band on stage at all times they also using music played over the speakers. It feels a bit unnecessary and the bleed loses slickness.
The Master of Ceremonies style character turns out to be the Balladier – he conducts the students one by one to command them to carry out murders in their school. All of the students are plagued by mystic dreams where they become the instigator of a school shooting, leading them into a Groundhog Day situation where they find themselves inevitably drawn to end up in the school’s auditorium with a gun in their hands. The Balladier is drawn by forces unknown to force each student into this ever-repeating song, the consequences of breaking which becomes the focus of the last act of the play.
The discussion of gun control in this play comes from a point of view which opposes the American model of positive liberty. The lyrics to the songs are rich in irony and gorgeously designed. While a pleasure to listen to rhythmically, it is gruesome and heavy in content and watching the relentlessness of the whole thing reinforces the core idea of the piece. Much like the relentlessness of the 24 hour news cycle, the repetitive and Groundhog Day nature of the regularity of shootings in America.
The question really is – does the structure become a little bit too meta for its own good? I feel its up for debate and will differ from person to person. The play focuses far more on its structure, the structure of murder ballads and its own internal meta plot that it loses some of its impact. It’s a daring concept, the music is deeply enjoyable while being grim, and you feel engaged with the themes. It really is a little up in the air as to if the whole structure works to its fullest extent.
Recommended Drink: Americana is like a big bowl of Punch – you wonder whether what gruesome insides make it up slightly takes away from the flavour.
Catch Americana: A Murder Ballad at Assembly Checkpoint until August 17th at 13:20 every day. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.