Lizzie is Not Herself Today: Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders”

Presented by imaginary beasts
Adapted from the short story by Angela Carter
Directed by Matthew Woods

Oct. 1-22, 2016
Plaza Black Box Theater
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) Anyone who lives in NE and isn’t familiar with the Lizzie Borden story, can’t call themselves a native. On August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with an axe. An axe any family of the times would have kept to chop wood for the kitchen or other necessary household fires. The Borden axe was spectacular for its extracurricular activities only.

The Fall River Axe Murders is a short story written by Angela Carter and adapted for the stage by imaginary beasts. In it, a sextet of narrators (Kamelia Aly, Melissa Barker, Joy Campbell, Cari Keebaugh, Catherine Luciani, Kaitee Tredway) examine the minutes before Andrew and Abby Borden are extinguished by the blade. They are our documentarians, and supporting witnesses into the character of the Borden family. Before the murders, Lizzie was a known to the town as a moral, charitable citizen who worked towards the care of the less fortunate. Her infamous crazy eyes, which stare deep into the pit of your soul from her onstage portrait, tell a different story.

The set design is gorgeous. Matthew Woods and Christopher Bocchiaro give us a fantasy realm in gauzes, wood textures and bleak silhouettes to tickle the neuroses. The psychological impact is compounded by Sam Beebe’s sound design and compositions. Bocchiaro’s lighting is the icing of the creepiness cake. Together they’ve created Klimtian meets Munchian scene pictures.

There is only one weak moment in The Fall River Axe Murders; it is the short singing of the Borden nursery rhyme by the cast. Immediately after Kaitee Tredway treats us to a stunning noir ballet as the Angel of Death/Labyrinth’s junk lady with wings, the cast clambers across the stage singing the rhyme in clashing pitches. This moment has the potential to be scary a la any little girl in a horror film but it lacks conviction. It appears as if the actresses are insecure in either the music or their staging. The pitches aren’t the issue; the ensemble’s insecurity is. The tempo of the play picks up shortly after. We don’t forget the singing but we aren’t stuck on it either.

Angela Carter’s scrumptious text flows naturally from the page to the stage. Wood’s adaptation is true to Carter’s short story. The acting is sure to send shivers down your spine. Avid fans can rest easy that the original work is unadulterated. This play is a twisted fairy tale; Lizzie is a mad Cinderella oppressed by her ravenous, wicked stepmother. The entire family existed in squalid living and social conditions. Instead of taking her revenge by living well, Borden allegedly exacted her revenge via graphically discussed violence. Children should not attend. Extra-sensitive adults shouldn’t either.

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