Dallas — The women are killing it at the Bath House Cultural Center in Lizzie, the final show of Imprint Theatreworks’ second season. This is a group that refuses to be ignored, once again making “bold” an inadequate word to describe their work. This time it is rock musical of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The book is by Maner as are additional lyrics; Cheslik-deMeyer and Hewitt composed the music.
If a show entitled Lizzie opens on Halloween, it’s a pretty good guess the title character is Lizzie Andrew Borden, the alleged axe murderess who was indicted and acquitted of the 1892 parricide of Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby Gray. That murder became part of American lore, inspiring a macabre, inappropriate nursery rhyme:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
Ashley H. White’s direction exemplifies her statement in a recent interview “as creators of theatre, our responsibility is to take the audience on a journey that enhances and defines the human experience.” She and musical director Rebecca Lowrey are doing just that through an addictive frenzied story told by four actresses and four musicians in addition to Lowrey.
There were two Borden sisters, Lizzie (Devin Berg) and Emma (Laura Lites), who was older by nine years. On the day of the murders, Emma was away visiting friends. In the house were Lizzie, the Irish immigrant maid, Bridget, who was also sometimes called Maggie (Aubrey Ferguson), Andrew and Abby Borden. Around 9 a.m. Andrew left for the office while Abby went upstairs to make the bed in the guest room. No one is quite sure where Lizzie was. By the time Andrew returned unexpectedly at 10:30, Abby had already been murdered and lay undiscovered in her blood upstairs. Lizzie told Andrew that Abby had received a note calling her away to visit a sick friend. Maggie had taken a nap. Lizzie’s screaming awakened her which is when Andrew’s body was found. Shortly thereafter, Abby’s body was discovered. Alice Bell (Theresa Keller), friend and neighbor, came to keep the sisters company during the period following.
This remains one of the most intriguing unsolved crimes in America. As might be expected, there are many theories about how the murders happened, in particular, how Lizzie managed it without getting blood on her clothing. This creative team has taken the known elements of the case and drawn believable interpretations. It is through the music that their vision is relayed to the audience. “The Soul of the White Bird” starts as a solo but becomes a trio with singing and spoken words “Stop it, daddy, Lock away your secrets, lock away my life.” This number removes any doubt about this show’s theory as to why the murders happened.
Lizzie is rock music in the musical theater idiom at its best, stylistically and unapologetically raw with insistent pounding patterns. Berg, Lites, Ferguson and Keller fiercely maximize their vocal agility and use their bodies like additional instruments in the band. The combined energy of the actors and the band is ritualistic in a Stravinsky, Rite of Spring sort of way.
More of the opening number, please — "House of Borden.” Each actor a big, strong voice so no one dominates. Ferguson’s Irish dialect is convincing.
“Questions, Questions” is a lot of fun because of its compound rhythms which feel like 3 + 4. It is conversational and the women nail it as a dialogue on pitches. Runner-up favorite would have to be “What the Fuck (Lizzie)” which comes in a type of I-can’t-leave-you-alone-for-one-minute moment in the second act. (That cuss word happens to be the director’s favorite expletive which she revealed during her Proust Questionnaire with TheaterJones’ Betsy Lewis.)
There are lyrical songs as well, notably Alice’s solo, “If You Knew.” Keller’s lilting tone is just right for this number. Berg has this innate ability to start in one place as one persona and shed layers until a seemingly completely different being burst onto stage. This is needed for Lizzie Borden but not everyone accomplishes this type of transformation so well.
For as wonderful as the actors’ performances are, this story demands strong production values and it has them, thanks to Brian Christensen’s sound design, Ashley H. and Aaron White’s set (carpenter, Abby Kipp-Roberts), Wallace’s costumes and the lighting design by Daniel Spiropoulos. Costumes establish period. The first act is set in the 19th century. Act two progresses forward with hard, funky leather and lace.
Visible on a raised platform upstage, the band sounds like an ensemble who have been playing together for years. Solid players, all: Lowrey (piano), Devan Bell (cello aux percussion), Sara Bollinger (bass), Bree Hill (drums), and Rachel Francis and Gilbert Glenn (guitars).
Lizzie is ballsy, provocative and utterly fantastic. As the opening number tells us, “There’s some crazy shite in the house of Borden.”