The Notorious Tale of Lizzie Borden Comes to the Chance Theater

Not-so-quiet riot grrrl. Photo by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio

Strange and bizarre subjects are certainly not uncommon to musicals. Whether it’s human-size cats bounding across a stage or a town where urine is taxed, there doesn’t seem anything too out there to be turned into some form of song-and-dance spectacle.

But all too often, those shows don’t do more than prove the human imagination is quite capable of turning even a cow’s ear into silk. The shows might be fun and well-put-together, but they don’t amount to more than what they are: strange and bizarre.

That isn’t the case with Lizzie the Musical, which recounts the tale of Lizzie Borden, the notorious, ax-wielding murderess who hacked her father and stepmother to death in a small Massachusetts town in 1892. Creators Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt weren’t content with merely dramatizing the gory story of the real-life woman turned into a character of American mythology through a nursery-like rhyme. Instead, using a punk-rockish score and an unabashedly sympathetic treatment of Borden, this show is far less about wallowing in the luridness of patricide and homicide than it is about self-empowerment and self-actualization. It’s all riot grrrl and more than a little #metoo, and by turning Borden into a heroine and celebrating her vengeful exploits, Lizzie rises above its grisly story and becomes a provocative—and more than a little unsettling—re-imagining of a slice of bloody American folklore that’s far more about the politics and culture of the 21st century than it is about life in the late 19th century.

At least that’s the takeaway from this Chance Theater production, skillfully directed by Jocelyn A. Brown and featuring a rocking six-piece live band and four actresses who hurl themselves into the frenzied tale. Unlike the real Borden, reportedly a mild, unassuming 32-year-old Sunday school teacher, this Lizzie (played in riveting fashion by Monika Peña) seems younger and her motivations for a crime that she probably (although there are many other theories) committed far clearer.

Those motivations are, apparently, infused into the factual details of Borden’s life, which were widely publicized by the newspapers of the day. In this retelling, sexual molestation by her wealthy but strange father and his disgust at her relationship with her closest female friend turns Lizzie into the kind of victim that contemporary audiences can surely find sympathetic. Her psychological scars are inflamed by her father’s marriage to his second wife, who cuts Lizzie and her sister out of his will. So, she decides to cut back.

Up until this point, which ends Act 1, the story, as edgy as it is with its coupling of psychosis and sexuality (the four actresses barely conceal the heels, garters and torn black lace beneath their otherwise-genteel clothing) is easy enough to follow. But Act 2 rushes along too quickly, and while we understand what led Borden to do this, it’s impossible to figure out why she isn’t found guilty.

Of course, the point isn’t why Borden ultimately walked or whether she committed these heinous deeds. It’s that at some point, a woman long dismissed, objectified and oppressed decides enough is enough—and acts.

That is borne out through the lyrics, the chunky three-chord progressions and punkish attitude of the score, and Hazel Clarke’s fluid, sinewy choreography, all supporting the impressive work by the performers (including Alli Rose Schynert as Lizzie’s sister, Jisel Soleil Ayon as her friend, and Nicole Gentile as Scottish maid Bridget). Though Lizzie’s arms held the hatchet, all four of the women helped to sharpen the blade. These are no shrinking violets or demure girls whose cute smiles conceal their fangs. There is no posing among them, nor is there the sense they’re merely reacting to the patriarchal, socio-economic conditions with which they’ve been saddled. They are actors, yes, but they’re not just pretending. They’ve had enough, and they decide to act in real time to shake shit up. And even though only one commits the action that burns the house down, the other three stand in varying degrees of solidarity.

As does this entire production. Keyboardist and musical director Robyn Manion drives the band, set up at the back of the stage, in manic fashion, pumping her arms and gesturing widely. Twice, guitarist Jacob Gonzalez walks downstage, while the characters, Lizzie in particular, seem enchanted by him. And when the moment comes to take the 81 whacks, the tool Lizzie uses is an empty mic stand. It seems clear the show’s creators are creating a wormhole of sorts, the music of the future serving as soundtrack to the passion and energy of these characters in the past. Who knows? Had Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett lived in 1890s America, maybe women wouldn’t have had to fight nearly 30 more years for the right to vote. They’d have been too busy butchering the asshole men.

Lizzie the Musical at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; www.chancetheater.com. Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through March 3. $35-$49.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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