Everything I knew about Lizzie Borden I had learned either from the whacky jingle (“Lizzie Borden took an axe…”) or the Agnes DeMille ballet—but now that I’ve been to Imaginary Beasts’ THE FALL RIVER AXE MURDERS (@ BCA through Oct. 22nd), I know Lizzie’s (extremely sympathetic) side of the story. British novelist Angela Carter’s luminous short stories have served as the jumping off point for other Imaginary Beasts productions. Like her Vampire stories were, this one proves to be the perfect armature for the Beasts’ imaginative brand of theatrics.
The Beasts, under Matthew Woods’ dexterous direction, often duplicate roles in a story, exchange roles with puppets or integrate narration and repetition into the action of a piece… all of which amplifies the material and causes it to resonate in the brain. Their spoken and gestural language marries dance, song, sound and ritual to metaphor, working in a way that is unique only to them. If you haven’t experienced an IB production, you’re missing what theater can become, beyond the traditional form.
Carter’s sumptuous storytelling illuminates the facts in glorious detail like the monks illuminated ancient manuscripts with color and filigree. Her vivid descriptions cut through mere words like a knife. Take the self-righteous “gentlemen” of the era who “garrote[d] themselves with neckties” equating virtue with discomfort; Her Lizzie is a prisoner of a time when women, even women of privilege, “belonged” to men, as possessions to be displayed and controlled, corseted and blanketed in layers of clothing to cover and keep their bodies hidden, one presumes from other men.
The scene is set for murder: A humid, “combustible day” in August, a father who cruelly deprived his daughter of her beloved birds, a stepmother who could never replace Lizzie’s own, and the deep, soul numbing realization that she could never escape her life. The performers unwind the thread of fate, tangling it about her, sending her downward on the thinnest of tightropes, surrounding her ears with the relentless, buzzing wings of a fly… despairing and depriving her of hope, perhaps even of sanity.
Six remarkable women people the play as the many Lizzie multiples/narrators, as Victorian ladies, ghosts, flies, father, servants, stepmother, even death. They work so seamlessly that when they switch a role, it’s impeccably designated, always expertly defined. Kamelia Aly is the portrait keeper; Catherine Luciani is the Victorian companion; Kaitee Tredway is the Master Puppeteer (although they all manipulate the various puppets); Melissa Barker is the voice of Mrs. Russell; Joy Campbell is the fly; Cari Keebaugh is the voice of Lizzie. Most importantly, even as they share the role of Lizzie, they emote as one.
Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s stark, exaggerated costumes evoke stifling emotionality, as does Christopher Bocchiaro’s shadowy lighting and Sam Beebe’s eerie sound design. Woods, Beth Owens and Jill Rogati share puppet design with Luciani, Treadway and Sarah Gazdowicz in the puppet shadow play. What sets IB apart is the ensemble work which is so integrated in the DNA of the piece that separating out the individual components seems a disservice to their creativity. Suffice it to say, you will not find better ensemble performance anywhere.