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It's no mystery that we like a good murder tale

Musical explores American culture's fascination with crime.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

It doesn't surprise director Dustin Wills that when Austin playwright Elizabeth Doss was living in Spain for a year, she crystallized plans for her play 'Murder Ballad Murder Mystery,' a dreamlike theatrical exploration of the American folk obsession with murder tales.

'When you're in a foreign country, that inner Americana voice starts to speak to you,' says the award-winning Wills, who's directing Doss' play, which opens this weekend at the Vortex theater.

And that inner Americana voice told Dobbs it was time to bring all the threads that had been weaving around in her head into one story for the stage.

Threads like the enduring appeal of murder ballads in American culture, how songs of mythic crimes — or true crimes transformed into archetypical tales — have stuck with us through the centuries. Has the American appetite for murder stories ever abated?

Not really, Doss surmised. So what if that appetite were re-examined and history mixed up with the contemporary versions of murder tales?

'What if our folk myths and traditions about death were to crash-land in a modern context?' says Doss of the starting point for her play.

You know, what if the dark, grisly work of, say, writer Cormac McCarthy and filmmaker David Lynch crash-landed in vaudeville? And then, what if the story behind a traditional murder ballad merged with the television series 'Law and Order'?

What if you threw in a little line-dancing, added some new original ballads and set the whole thing in a Mississippi Delta-like landscape that's recently devastated by a flood but where the past 200 years of American culture is compressed into one mish-mash of cultural symbols?

So is 'Murder Ballad Murder Mystery,' well, deadly serious musical drama?

No, say Doss and Wills. The production they conceived together emphasizes unmistakable theatrical artifice. Using the Vortex's flexible nature, the set for 'Murder Ballad Murder Mystery' extends off the stage, surrounds the audience and even extends into the lobby where a preshow, murder-themed art installation will get audience members in the mood.

'Really, murder ballads present the most classic existential dilemmas — questions of life and death and right and wrong — but do so in this completely folksy, entertaining manner,' says Doss.

'There's some dark stuff (in the play), but it's theatrically playful.'

Just like a good ballad.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699