by John Stoltenberg
Don’t groan but this is a bloody good show. It rocks, it roils, it’s saucy and sassy, it’s effin in-your-face.
The story is gory as you might expect. It’s about the legendary 1892 axe murder of Lizzie Borden’s pa and stepma in Fall River, Massachusetts. At the time, the crime was a tabloid sensation. Then as now, the notion of women who kill obsessed the media.
Lizzie was tried but acquitted. Afterward she lived a quiet private life on her inheritance. To this day historians cannot suss out the perp and motive. But the mythology of Lizzie as culprit lives on in infamy and nursery rhyme.
In the early 1990s a rockin’ musical was made of the Lizzie legend. Its riot grrrl esthetic and postpunk score were perfect for flouting the straight-laced Victoriana of its source material. Similarly a few years later, alt rock in Spring Awakening thumbed its churlish nose at sexual repression coming down concurrently in Germany.
Has there ever been a musical genre more suited to defiance and revolt than rock?
That spirit of insubordination is on ample display in Pinky Swear’s pugnacious production of Lizzie. Director Marie Byrd Sproul turns the Anacostia Playhouse black box into a boom box of rebellion.
Musical Director Piero Bonamico (who also plays keyboard) leads a note-perfect band: Katie Chambers (cello), Alice Fuller (percussion), Josh Ballard (bass guitar), and Mark Schramm (solo guitar). Together they give the score by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt a crowd-rousing rendition.
Accomplished as the musicians are, it’s four female actor/singers who turn this show into songs of insolence. The women appear as characters who are individuated in the narrative: Pinky Swear Artistic Director Karen Lange is Bridget, the Borden family’s maid. Alani Kravitz is Lizzie. Rebecca Speas is Emma, Lizzie’s sister. And Allyson Harkey is Alice, a neighbor with whom Lizzie trysts in the barn.
Each wears an outrageously witty outfit by Costume Designer Liz Gossens (corsets meet punk, Victorian goes raunch). And each can belt like a rocker buzzed on fury or a balladeer ablissed on tenderness. Their delivery of the lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner, which are really clever, doesn’t always land understandably. But their vocal, physical, and psychic cohesion leaves such a powerful impression of insurgency that the very notion of “women who kill” takes on a whole other meaning:
In the slang sense of noteworthy performance, these are women who kill.