Special Reports

Scenic Designer Mark Wendland Leads Us on a Walking Tour of Off-Broadway’s Murder Ballad

Inside the Union Square Theater with the man responsible for reconfiguring it.

Mark Wendland on stage at <i>Murder Ballad</i>.
Mark Wendland on stage at Murder Ballad.
(© David Gordon)

At the northeast corner of Union Square stands the Union Square Theatre, a performance space within a building with a unique history. Where audience members now mingle with Caissie Levy, Will Swenson, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and John Ellison Conlee in the sexy mystery musical Murder Ballad, politicians used to gather under the guise Tammany Hall.

It was the building’s unique history that attracted scenic designer Mark Wendland and the Murder Ballad team when they began considering a transfer of the show from Manhattan Theatre Club’s tiny Studio at Stage II to a larger space. But the Union Square Theatre, a proscenium house with orchestra and balcony levels, needed to be reconfigured to fit director Trip Cullman’s vision, an environmental barroom atmosphere where audience members sat in standard theater seats and at cocktail tables on the stage itself, with the actors essentially taking over the room.

“The thing that made this specifically a unique experience was that you have to incorporate the room,” Wendland said. “We looked at a couple of venues, and each had to be completely reimagined. We didn’t want to hide the room. It was [about] finding what was already unique about this space. This theater has a sense of history, so it was about enhancing that history.”

Church pews intermingle with wicker seats and traditional auditorium chairs in rows on a specially constructed playing space that replaces the stage. The theater’s gorgeous chandelier now hangs lower over the action, while the mezzanine is off-limits. The actors run, jump, and dance all over the place, which really does bear a striking resemblance as a Lower East Side bar. They had five weeks to renovate the theater, before which the plan had to be approved by an architect and New York City. “The whole deck had to be built by a contractor so it could have the right architectural approval,” Wendland noted, adding that the room also needed two wheelchair ramps, railings, and four fire exits.

Just prior to the show’s off-Broadway reopening, Wendland, a Tony Award nominee for his work on the recent Broadway productions of The Merchant of Venice and Next to Normal, took us on a tour of the newly configured space, and gave us the secrets behind the vivid set. It can be found in the gallery below.

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