Reviews

Take an Axe to Other Plans and Go See Firebrand Theatre’s “Lizzie”

★★★★

Lizzie, a musical by Tim Maner, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, is a taut, perfectly structured play in the mode of Sweeney Todd or Jekyll and Hyde: a dark, bloody story with a thrilling score and such inventive stagecraft that it makes for an electrifying night at the theatre. The production by brand new Firebrand Theatre, making its debut with this show, is no exception: with its strong direction, brilliant acting, excellent musicianship, and carefully crafted lights and sound, this Lizzie does the show’s creators proud, telling the punk rock saga of Lizzie Borden with panache and power. It’s difficult to imagine the show done any better.

The thing with this musical is that, more than with most, the staging, set and even the blocking have been practically set in stone from the time of the original New York productions. More likely than not, when you see a production of Lizzie, you’ll see a reflection of that iconic staging, and there is nothing wrong with that. The job of the director in such a situation is to find inventive ways of making this production unique even though it is similar to others, and Victoria Bussert has certainly done that. Taking the basic blocking, she makes it her own with exaggerated, often robotic movements and glorious stage pictures throughout the evening. This show could be a clinic on how to create stage pictures, and it’s important that Bussert keep the stage alive: it’s a minimalistic kind of show, with four female singers fronting a small rock combo on a mostly bare space. Part concert, part play, part history lesson/conjecture, part comic gore-fest (the front row at the Den Theatre’s Bookspan Theatre space is a “splash zone”; ponchos are issued to patrons sitting there to avoid getting covered with watermelon-gore when the axe flies), it’s a show whose chief goal is to have a good time illuminating a story that most Americans pretty much think they know:

Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father 41.

The real Lizzie Borden was acquitted, but that hasn’t stopped history from proclaiming her guilty. Lizzie doesn’t shy away from history’s verdict, but it provides possible context. One of the first songs in the show is the anguished “This Is Not Love,” Lizzie’s painful, haunting exploration of her father’s sexual improprieties since her mother died. In this song, Liz Chidester establishes a Lizzie who has been broken by these violations: her voice becomes shocking, a combination of a child and a stereotypical witch, and her face overflows with the torturous memories. Chidester gives a slight preview of this emotion in the first words she speaks—her introduction—but it isn’t until this song that we begin to see where the show is taking Borden’s character.

The show doesn’t let her off with easy excuses, though, and the fact that it doesn’t allows Chidester to play with a wide variety of emotions and scenes. When Lizzie’s sister Emma (Camille Robinson) discovers that their stepmother is plotting to grab their inheritance from them, the half-crazed Lizzie immediately hits upon the notion of off-ing the extremely disliked woman, leading to one of the evening’s highlights, “Scattercane and Velvet Grass.” In this song, Lizzie is handed (by the constantly meddling servant Bridget, played with pure malevolent joy by Leah Davis) a “Book of Household Poisons,” and puzzles over which would be best to kill Mrs. Borden. Robinson’s Emma may not be plotting murder, but she seethes with every fiber of her being in the hatred of her father’s wife, and if Lizzie thinks of killing her, well… The abruptness with which Robinson shifts gears upon hearing Lizzie ask about the notion of Mrs. B. dying is both wonderfully comic and terrifying: neither of these girls has a bit of moral compass anywhere in their beings.

In contrast to the turmoil playing with the minds of the Borden girls, the play also introduces us to one neighbor, Alice Russell (Jacquelyne Jones), who carries a secret of her own: she is in love with Lizzie. She has an early, very touching song, “If You Knew,” in which she asks: “If you knew how I’ve been watching you, if you knew how I see everything you do, if you knew, could I still touch you? Would you let me comfort you if you knew?” Jones plays Alice very tenderly, allowing the smallest movements to mean the world: Lizzie’s hand resting on her knee lights up her whole face. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking performance, which makes it all the more tragic that it is Alice who ends up betraying Lizzie to the police, telling them she saw her burn a dress. This comes on the heels of a beautiful bit of blocking. The second act song “Will You Lie?” is a mirror of Act One’s “Will You Stay?” lyrically and musically, and it also mirrors the earlier song in another way: in “Will You Stay?” Alice holds onto a retreating Lizzie, trying to get her to see that staying with her would calm her. In “Will You Lie?” it is Lizzie holding desperately to a retreating Alice, entreating her to lie for her. Bussert’s stage pictures here are perfect opposites of each other, and the end result, too, is opposite: Lizzie stays in Act One; Alice leaves in Act Two.

The lighting and sound here deserve a shout-out as well, especially since they turn this small space into a full-fledged rock concert hall. But it isn’t only that: Maya Michele Fein’s lighting is full of little surprises—shadows where you don’t expect them but where they are perfect, deep reds to begin Act Two after the murders, a chandelier made of bird cages that helps to symbolize the “cages” that the Borden sisters were kept in by their tyrannical father. (The opening number tells us that “in the House of Borden there’s a lock on every door, in every room a prisoner of a long, silent war.”) As to sound, Victoria Deiorio had a challenge here and proved more than up to it. Each performer wears a head mic, using hand mics for concert-style prop work and some fun movement, but there are a lot of balance and mixing issues to deal with here as well as effects throughout the evening, and Deiorio is on top of it all. Finally (but not in any way least), Andra Velis Simon’s six-piece rock band is so solid that I’d pay to see them perform on their own.

I know my title pun was cheesy and, frankly, pretty awful, but it’s sincere: do whatever you can to see this show. Every aspect of it works perfectly, and it is one of those musicals that isn’t produced very often (this is the Chicago premiere and the show is five years old!), so you may not get another chance for a while.

Lizzie is now playing at The Den Theatre (presented by Firebrand Theatre), 1333 N. Milwaukee, until December 17. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM. Thursday performances begin 11/30. Tickets are $20-45 and are available from The Den TheatreFind more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

 (karen topham)

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