Elevate Difference

Lizzie Borden (09/10/2009)

New York, New York

How do you spin a nursery rhyme into a full-length musical? In this case, the uber-creepy poem in question is, thankfully, based in reality: the eponymous Lizzie Borden who reputedly “took an axe” and “gave her father forty whacks” was a real life New England girl accused—and acquitted—of murdering both her parents in the late nineteenth century, so there’s more than enough material to mine. But the rock musical bearing her name, like the nursery rhyme, doesn’t take this grim piece of history so seriously, blending period and punk to create a tongue-in-cheek murderous romp.

In Took An Axe’s production of the tale, our bloodthirsty heroine (and she is treated as such) goes from prim and pale to full-on goth, trading her petticoats for a pair of leather gloves and black lipstick post-patricide. Meanwhile, the Bordens’ housekeeper Bridget (Carrie Cimma) is pure punk from the moment she steps out on stage, from her spiked-up bleach blonde hair to her leather corset. We quickly discover the symbolism of such costuming as Bridget whispers encouragement in the trepidatious Lizzie’s ear, providing a sort of heavy metal devil on her shoulder. By the time the second act begins, the entire cast has completely abandoned their period posturing to wield their mics like modern rock stars.

On the night that I attended, the audience ate up such irreverence, cheering openly when Lizzie spattered her parents’ blood all over the white backdrop upstage. As with Rocky Horror, though, Borden isn’t just about the gimmick; the music is fantastic too. The full-on rock numbers, like the joyously hard “Why Are All These Heads Off?,” pull no punches, while the more traditional musical theatre tunes are full of gorgeously executed harmonies. “Burn the Old Thing Up,” which the somewhat wistful Lizzie (Jenny Fellner) sings while setting fire to her bloodstained dress, is a poignant farewell to both her younger, repressed self and the evidence of her adult murder.

The Living Theatre’s tiny space is used commendably well, with a red scrim dividing the stage and separating the actors from the band. This gauzy curtain is pulled aside at times, opening up the upstage area for scenes set on the Bordens’ rooftop, which are beautifully staged with creative, unexpected lighting effects.

As one of very few all-female rock musicals in existence, Lizzie Borden is valuable for any feminist theatergoer, and this production is particularly fun. Admittedly, the tone of the show as a whole is a bit muddled, as certain actors play it almost too straight, but if you make a pact with yourself at the door to just surrender to the mayhem, you’ll be cheering too.

Written by: Caitlin Graham, September 15th 2009