It's fitting that Murder, Hope—a new solo show by Becky Poole—occupies the current late-night slot at Annex Theatre. This small, fragile rumination on murder ballads, Batman, and childhood aphasia has a free-associative feel, like thoughts drifting by when you're lying in bed, waiting for sleep. In past shows, Poole—a sketch comedian and player of the accordion and the musical saw—has filled rooms with manic energy and Gatling-gun delivery. Murder, Hope charts a more melancholy landscape.
Poole's young nephew Devin has Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, also known as acquired epileptic aphasia, which has eroded his ability to speak. As Poole's mother explains in a recorded interview: "He went from this bubbly little boy who could say all kinds of things to a boy who could not finish a sentence." Poole plays out his trouble in a series of performance vignettes: giving a refrigerator salesman's cocky pitch, then repeating it in fractured language, or drawing a skyline with her left hand while blindfolded, her other arm in a sling and sheathed in an oven mitt.
Then come the oblique associations: In a strong, haunted voice, she sings new lyrics to "Omie Wise"—a 19th-century murder ballad about Naomi Wise, a North Carolina girl murdered by her lover after getting pregnant—changing the ending so the guy gets it in the end. Poole appropriates monologues from The Dark Knight about being a crime-fighting badass, but gropes around the stage in a blindfold. At its best, Murder, Hope is quietly harrowing—Poole plays her accordion and walks up and down the small theater's central aisle, singing a dirge about a night nurse and her midnight ministrations to the desperately ill. "Life's better," she sings in a deadpan, "after you're dead."
Murder, Hope is like a phthisic child: You want to take it home, feed it chicken soup, and tell it that everything is going to be all right.