by Rachel Lewis
Evoking a creepy chorus of children setting the scene in a melancholic horror flick, New Line’s staging of the off-kilter rock, or more appropriately, riot grrrl musical Lizzie, opens with the schoolyard rhyme that likely serves as the primary point of reference for most audience members toward the titular Victorian crime saga: “Lizzie Borden took an ax/ She gave her mother 40 whacks…” And it gets creepier, and more tongue-in-cheek, from there.
Do not expect understatement from Lizzie. Yes, its set design is minimalist, sparingly evoking the Victorian drawing room of the ill-fated Borden family whose matriarch and patriarch were brutally murdered with an ax in their home on the morning of August 4, 1892. Similarly, its violence is more often suggested through gesture and tone rather than blatantly carried out on a blood-soaked stage. Nevertheless, the musical is anything but subtle; instead, it is over-the-top in the best way.
This is evident in the all-female cast’s neon, burlesque costumes, complete with leather combat boots and fingerless gloves, that embody the characters’ rage and panic hidden just beneath the surface of their seemingly prim-and-proper upbringing. Equally ambitious are the stylistically broad-ranging musical numbers offered up by co-creators Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, who stated in an interview for Portland Center Stage that their influences include The Runaways and Patti Smith. In songs that range from the plaintively sweet (“The Soul of the White Bird”), to the beautifully eerie (“Shattercane and Velvet Grass”), to the straight-out hard rock angry, culminating in the raucous punk anthem that wraps up the first act in a studded hot pink dog collar, “Somebody Will Do Something,” those influences are certainly not hidden.
Lizzie’s themes are similarly ambitious. They nod to popular theories of the motives behind the Borden murders committed (or perhaps not) by one of two adult sisters who appear to have been trapped in a stifling upper-middle-class, small-town American household with a parsimonious father and loveless stepmother. However, it neither is, nor seemingly intends to be, a period drama. Instead, the themes it draws from historical theories of Lizzie’s possible motives- including domestic abuse, misogyny, class and privilege, and same-sex desire- peer at a Victorian narrative through a contemporary lens that as much reflects our own culture as that populated by the Bordens.
A narrative of gory murder, burlesque costuming, and musings on gender and class are not all that Lizzie provides its audience, however. Despite or (depending on how much you love the horror genre) perhaps because of, its thematic and narrative darkness, it is, above all, fun. Backed by a hard-rocking, talented band, the cast seem to have enjoyed themselves as much as the audience did. Though Anna Skidis Vargas in the role of Lizzie Borden was, for me, the standout, all four actresses offered powerful voices and spunky energy, and seemed just as comfortable getting gritty and delightfully pissed-off as showing off their musical training.
A punk musical that draws as much on horror movie tropes of family dynamics gone horribly wrong as it does on the Victorian news story that helped usher in our contemporary fascination with media accounts of domestic murder and the trials that follow, Lizzie may not appeal to everyone. It is unapologetically feminist in an all-but-academic way, and those who think feminism is still a dirty word might want to go elsewhere. But for the rest of us, Lizzie gives us 90 minutes of heart (and Heart), style, and high-energy, darkly funny (and sad and angry) entertainment just in time for Halloween.