Three-and-a-half of five stars
Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa.
Through Nov. 6: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.
Probably you know the story: In 1893, Lizzie Borden, of Fall River, Massachusetts, was acquitted of the ax murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby. It was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day, and it’s never stopped attracting investigators. Even in Lizzie’s time, the evidence was incriminating. Lizzie may have been molested by her father. Lizzie and sister Emma had a cold relationship with their stepmother, and had reason to fear that Andrew Borden was giving away his fortune to her and her blood relatives. Shortly before the murder, Andrew slaughtered a group of pigeons for whom animal-lover Lizzie had built a roost. A friend of the Bordens saw Lizzie burning a dress just a day after the murders; Lizzie said it was indelibly stained with paint. Under questioning by police, Lizzie changed her story often. An ax head was found in the Borden basement that seemed artificially covered with dust.
Certainly there’s more than enough here to make a riveting courtroom drama, or maybe even a postmodern meditation on how slippery truth is, how hard to pin down. Well, Jobsite Theater — in association with the Straz Center — currently brings us something else altogether: the Lizzie Borden story as Rock Opera of Feminine Rage, Female Frenzy, Dominatrix Passion, and Leather Leggings Lawlessness. The Lizzie Borden of Lizzie (book by Tim Maner, music by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, lyrics by Cheslik-DeMeyer and Maner) isn’t just likely to be a murderess, she’s probably behind every violent crime from Hartford to Boston in the early 1890s. As acted and sung by the talented Colleen Cherry, this chick is bonkers from the first moment we see her, as is her sister Emma, played with frightening madness by Heather Krueger, and their housemaid Bridget Sullivan, portrayed with great sinister energy by Fo’i Meleah. In fact, the only (temporarily) normal character in this four-woman spectacle is neighbor Alice Russell, played by the impressive Christina Jane Capehart. That Alice is in love with Lizzie, and that Lizzie’s father may have known it, is the only significant plot element that isn’t taken from the real Borden story — but before the evening ends, Alice too has been exposed as an S&M figure from an adolescent’s wet dream, complete with revealing red bra and unlimited swagger. This is not your grandma’s Lizzie Borden case.
Consider Cherry in the title role. When we first meet her, this young woman looks haunted, maybe traumatized. As she and the other characters belt out raucous anthem after raucous anthem, as they remove their period clothing to reveal hot pants and skintight leather (Brittany Reuther, designer), Cherry just gets more and more crazed, and after the murders are committed, she wanders through Brian Smallheer’s abstract set with a bloody dress in her hands like a figure in a Lovecraftian horror story. Or consider, again, Krueger: when she learns that not just her stepmother but her father has been killed, she turns on Lizzie and sings out “What the fuck!” like a gangster’s moll in an Elmore Leonard movie. Every emotion in Lizzie is supersized, most every song feverishly frantic. David Jenkins’ gonzo direction throws off all subtlety in favor of visual/aural excess, and there are moments when the singing isn’t far from screaming. This is wild theater, wanton theater, and at its best it’s sort of thrilling. If it eventually lacks modulation — even the few ballads suggest coming tempests — still it boasts a turbulent integrity.
And is it feminist? I’m not sure. On the one hand, these four female characters are staunchly assertive, instruments of their own wills. On the other hand, their will is largely for murder, crime, and deception, like Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra or Euripides’ Medea. So that old misogynist slander, that women are fundamentally irrational and “hysteric,” is more or less confirmed here, and there’s not a single character who by play’s end seems capable of a rational judgment. It’s interesting to me that all the musical’s creators are male: Lizzie may, in spite of its apparent respect for womanhood, be a well-disguised patriarchal product. I certainly wouldn’t trust any of these four women with a letter to mail — or an ax.
A last tidbit from the true story, which also makes it into the musical: Shortly before the murders, Lizzie attempted to buy the poison prussic acid from a local pharmacist. And in the days before the murders, members of the family were violently ill.
What, if she could, would Lizzie Borden sing?
How does Mark Leib assign stars? He explains his process here.