Bloodless: the Lizzie Borden Mystery

Evil Cheez Productions continued its run of fascinating original productions this month at the Lowry House, running Bloodless: the Lizzie Borden Mystery for three weekends.  They educated and entertained, with the facts and theories about an event that is already fading into legend.

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

We’ve all at least heard the name of Lizzie Borden, even if only from the kids jump-rope rhyme, and most are generally aware that she allegedly killed her father and step-mother with an axe, but that’s about it. In reality, she was acquitted in court, but was ostracized for the rest of her life, with public opinion of the time stacked against her.  But still, no one knows for sure whether she committed the murders, and if she did, why; and alternate theories abound.

Bloodless is a play structured like a History-channel special, with many of the various theories explained and acted out, with the goal of leaving it to the audience to form their own opinions.  The original script, by Wayne Miller, succeeds quite well in educating the audience on the basic facts of the event, and keeping it entertaining.  Given the gruesome subject matter, Miller also manages to find a good level of discomfort–not too horrid, but enough to remind everyone that we are talking about a double murder, after all.  As usual for Miller, the individual moments and scenes are very well written, with great dialogue, but the overall structure for the play can be a bit disorganized.  The idea for this show is to act out the various theories about what really happened, and tie it all together with a couple narrators who also double as police inspectors or prosecuting attorneys, questioning the various characters.  The problem is that it isn’t always clear to the audience when we have switched to a new scenario, and the different theories receive wildly differing amounts of stage time.  The most popular theory–that Lizzie did actually commit the murders–is covered repeatedly, hitting a number of different possible motivations for the act, and takes up about 80% of the show.  The other possible perpetrators share the remainder of the time, in varying amounts, all the way down to one theory that is dismissed in a single sentence.  If the objective is to show the various theories and let the audience decide, the result is pretty clearly an indictment on Lizzie and the shoddy police work.  Those general structure issues aside, it is still very much an enjoyable evening of theatre.

As always, with the performances being held in the living room of a historic landmark, the staging and technical elements are necessarily limited.  Miller, also serving as director, once again does a very nice job of ensuring there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and has helped the actors craft some quite interesting characters.  The sound, designed by Gordon Williamson and Johann Hausner, does a very nice job of setting the scene, and providing some effective “mood music” at key moments.  The costumes, by Sue Hassett, do quite well at distinguishing the characters, and matching the 1890s period.

The actors are what make this show truly entertaining, with some very nice performances, whether funny, creepy, or “merely” impressive.  Jeremy Woods and Valarie MacMurdy, as the narrators, do a fine job of setting the scenes, keeping the action moving, and tying everything together.  Michelle Huguley, as the title character, is wonderful in this role, portraying many different versions of the character, at turns sympathetic, terrifying, or creepy.  The rest of the cast is a stellar ensemble, with one stand-out being Greg Branham’s hilarious turn as the put-upon police clerk who was first on the scene.

Overall, this is a very entertaining evening of theatre.  The production has already closed, so if you missed it, don’t make that mistake whenever Evil Cheez brings it around again.  Groups like EC, creating and producing original works, need all the well-deserved support they can get.  Small, committed ensembles like this are where the next generation of great plays are born.

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