As folk heroines go, Lizzie Borden is a highly questionable choice. It’s not just the 40 whacks (or is it 81?), a historically inaccurate figure in any case. It’s the whole unseemly mess – a good word to define the Lizzie Borden story, fraught with inconsistencies and innuendo.
Was she raped and abused by her rich but cheapo father? Possibly. Was she getting into a love affair with a woman? Could be. Were she and her sister about to be shut out of an inheritance by her stepmother, in cahoots with her dad? Probably. Did she kill them both at their Massachusetts home on that sweltering day in 1892? She was acquitted.
Circumspect or not, there’s plenty of material for theatrical license. And the three creators of the punky heavy-metal musical “Lizzie” – Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt – use it all to give us a Lizzie we might be able to see as a victim of abuse and 19th-century repression of women. A Lizzie we could love. Many people did just that when 11th Hour Theatre Company presented a concert version of “Lizzie” several years back. At the company’s fully realized production, which opened Monday and seems like a concert version on steroids, they may love Lizzie even more. I did not.
There’s a torrent of rage in the 90-minute two-act musical, which starts off shrill, ends up shrill and soften at times in the middle when the show offers its best songs and the production, its best performances. But mostly, “Lizzie” operates on overkill, and an in-your-face attitude that might make you feel at times like you’re the one being whacked.
In the end, the show’s prodigious fury makes it hard to identify with its four characters, or see them as much more than stick figures. That’s no blot on the talented four-woman cast – a convincingly smirking Alex Keiper as Lizzie, Cara Noel Antosca as her sister, Meredith Beck as their calculating neighbor, and Rachel Brennan, playing the housemaid as if she’s just escaped “Young Frankenstein.” And you can’t really fault their director, Kate Galvin, for taking everything to the extreme. The material doesn’t leave room for less. (All five were part of the stage company’s original concert version.)
No matter how disagreeable I found the show, though, I managed to work up my own rage from its sound design, or the execution of it. The women perform on various platforms toward the front of the playing area on Thom Weaver’s spare set strewn with rock-band trunks, and a six-piece band led by Dan Kazemi backs them to the rear. Or battles them. I get it – it’s rock, it’s loud, it should be … at a concert. At a piece of theater where we need to make out the lyrics, not so much.
If I asked 10 people from the opening-night audience to tell me what exactly these women were singing in this song or that, they could probably respond with the gist, but not the actual grist. This is not just a problem with 11th Hour’s production. It’s becoming endemic. It’s understandable that a show’s entire cast and creative team can make out the lyrics – they’ve lived with them for weeks. (In this case, from concert version to full production, three years.) But we haven’t.
Did no one realize that when the women are amplified through the high-quality microphones in their hair, the sound in Toby Pettit’s design is crystal, yet when they convert intermittently to rock-concert hand-held microphones, listening to them is like doing the Jumble in the dark? You just can’t make it out. Thirty percent of the show, I’d say. Let’s see … that’s worth about 25 of Lizzie Borden’s total legendary whacks. If she did it.
__“Lizzie,” produced by 11th Hour Theatre Company, runs through Jan. 29 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, on N. American Street just north of Market, and adjacent to Christ Church. 267-987-9865 or www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org.