Monday, February 27, 2017

Lizzie: The Musical

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Lizzie: The Musical, a rock opera based on Lizzie Borden. I almost didn't go, and I'm so glad I persisted beyond my usual triad of configuring childcare/ticket price/laziness because it was fabulous.

Starting with Lizzie, blond, to left is Emma, above is Alice, to right is Bridget

Upon first googling, I thought the show took place in a Ramada and I haven't had much luck thus far with "hotel theater" ... I have no idea where that came from, because it was held in a perfectly respectable black box theater in the Sacramento Community Center. It was the first production of the Actor's Playpen, and if this is what they're capable of, I better get season tickets.

Here are a few great reviews of the show itself, which has many different productions happening around the country and internationally:

“A gothic rock ritual with a ‘riotgirl’ attitude … an eerie hybrid of rock club and a turn-of-the-century New England parlor.”
“Presented with wall-rattling glee…deliciously watchable”
— The New York Times
“Lush tunes which retch sex, rage, dyke heat, misanthropy, and incest … Surreal glee and gallows humor … Finally, a rock musical you’d wanna mosh to.”
— The Village Voice 

The show features four actors portraying Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and former next-door friend Alice Russell. They were played respectively by Jennifer Morrison, Joelle Robertson, Sara Logan and Chelsea Fitzsimmons. They were backed by a six-member band and two "swings" (which I guess is an understudy but when I first saw it in the program I thought it might have to do with aerial depictions of the hatchet "swinging" LOL...but they sat in the loft with the band and sang backup). The band was amazing. The singing of the four actors was amazing. I know it can't be easy to unleash total rock and roll mayhem in a small theater (around 60 attending the matinee with me) when at times you can literally reach out and touch an audience member--but they made it happen. The woman playing Lizzie really was amazing, both in voice and bodily command and the facial expressions that (when not being kitschy) really conveyed the agonies experienced by this 1892 woman pushed to (as I believe) commit the ultimate act (twice) of desperation.

Much of the show had this kind of action and vitality: that's Alice on her knees,
Emma in red, Lizzie with back turned and Bridget in blue

Every actor committed to their performance and each had something wonderful to contribute. I was especially fond of Bridget, as my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid (Yellow Pear Press, releasing in October) is told from her point of view. In fact, I'm regretting not staying afterward to grab a photo with her, but I was able to find a lot of great ones on the Actor's Playpen Facebook page, many of which are courtesy Yuri T. Photography (thanks for permission, Yuri!)

Cool shot of Bridget. The stage had no set so this must've been a promo shoot

This is live, shows the bare set. Courtesy of Yuri T Photography

 After this point, there are going to be some plot spoilers, so I hope you are prepared. Let me include a few ornaments to give you a few moments to depart if necessary.

The play utilizes the incest theory, that Andrew Borden sexually abused Lizzie, motivating her murder of him. During the song  "This Is Not Love," the actress's face was so incredibly expressive of that pain that I almost couldn't look. I missed some of the lyrics, but I think the insinuation was that Emma had also been abused. In my novel, I had to decide whether to use this theory. I decided not to.

Almost certain she's singing "This Is Not Love"

The musical also avails itself of the theory that Lizzie was involved in a lesbian relationship--but in a twist, not with Bridget but instead Alice Russell! The kisses onstage were pretty hot. I really liked how Alice's song of seduction, "Will you lie with me" transforms to Lizzie later singing to her, "Will you lie for me"...clever. Alice and Lizzie were both young in this production: in actuality, Alice was 40 and Lizzie 32 at the time of the murders, but hey that's rock and roll. In the film version coming out this year, it's reputedly Bridget (played by Kristen Stewart) who is Lizzie's lover and aider/abetter of murder. Lizzie will be played by Chloe Sevigny and Emma by Kim Dickens. Not sure who's playing Alice. See this blog post for diptychs of historical persons paired with their current day actor. But I digress...back to the musical...

Lizzie and Alice. Courtesy, Yuri T. Photography

The list of musical numbers in the program made me laugh out loud. The song "Why Are All These Heads Off?" could only be about the pigeons, and "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie" was one of my favorites, with Joelle Robertson ripping a fierce and elegant stripe through her sister's stupidity.

During the pigeons aftermath, Bridget is on the ground floor singing while Lizzie is up in the loft. Attention was focused on Bridget, but I happened to glance up at Lizzie crouched by the empty pigeon cage and the look on her face was such deplorable misery that somehow morphed into resolution: that she could do something about her pain and anger. Major props to this actress.

The production raised a historical thought I hadn't had before. I'd always thought of Lizzie choosing not to accompany Emma to Fairhaven, but in the musical it seems as if Emma abandons Lizzie, leaving her to face Andrew and Abby by herself. Emma, through Bridget, passes off a book about poisons, as if a primer for Lizzie, and the trip to Bence's pharmacy is covered. Click here for my blog post about whether that trip really happened. I always like hearing new approaches to historical questions, and the idea that Emma abandoned the post is a fascinating one. She'd been mothering Lizzie since their mother died, and dropped the ball during this one hot August. Interesting.

The production is well-researched and much of the dialogue comes straight from trial transcripts. The kitsch factor is, well, high, and there were a few moments of discomfort for me because at the heart of this was two elderly people who may or may not have deserved the ends they received. Murder is murder, and sometimes it's hard to want to rock out to that discordant tune.

A stairs promo picture...the musical didn't address Lizzie's being able
to see Abby's body on the stairs, but did mention her laughing.

Overall, though, I was carried by the show and the passionate performances. This show got a standing ovation from its audience. I hope that if you get a chance to see a production in your town, you will. Check the website for show dates: it's in London right now, and in July/August will be in San Jose for my fellow northern Californians (including August 4, which will be the 125th anniversary of the murders). Follow me on Twitter (@ErikaMailman) or follow this blog if you'd like to hear more about Lizzie Borden (check this blog's main page for a link to all my Lizzie posts) and/or my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid. The dual-chronology novel follows the Borden family maid Bridget Sullivan through the events leading up to the murders, and introduces a modern-day woman whose mother was murdered-- and she fears she's the next victim. Sounds good, right? ;)

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P.S. after uploading, I found this brief video clip from Good Morning Sacramento. It doesn't truly express what it feels like to have audience energy, to truly hear the band filling the space... but it is a chance to hear the incredible vocals. 


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Feminine hatchet blows?

In his closing argument in the 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden, attorney Hosea Knowlton had quite a task ahead of him. He had to convince a jury of men that the quiet, church-volunteering woman in front of them had slain her stepmother with a hatchet, laid in wait an hour or two, and then butchered her father the same way.

He told the jurors, “It is hard, it is hard, Mr. Foreman and gentlemen, to conceive that woman can be guilty of crime. But I am obliged to say…while we revere the sex, while we show our courtesies to them, they are human like unto us….If they lack in strength and coarseness and vigor, they make up for it in cunning, in dispatch, in celerity, in ferocity.”

He knew many people didn’t think a woman capable of wielding a hatchet with such power … so he made a funny argument. He claimed that the hatchet blows were feminine in nature.

Rose-water scented as well, perhaps?

Here’s what he said:

What sort of blows were they? Some struck here at an angle, badly aimed; some struck here in the neck, badly directed; some pattered on the top of the head and didn’t go through; some, where the skull would be weaker, went through. A great strong man would have taken a blow of that hatchet and made an end of it. The hand that held that weapon was not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strongly only in hate and desire to kill.

He goes on to describe the strikes as “weak, puttering, indecisive, badly aimed, nerveless.”

I’m sure he only wished they might find a pink hatchet with her fingerprints on it.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Research notebooks

Yep, four notebooks filled to the gills with research and scene outlining and all that jazz.

And here are some pages I discarded. I was lying in bed on a rainy day and throwing them off the end. I've gotten to the point that there's so much information in there that I have to cull out stuff I've already used so it's easier to find the things I want to put my hands on. I use post-it notes on the sides to draw my attention to certain pages, like "Brooke facts"- a page where all the dates and facts on one character are found.

. . . .