Tag Archives: Emily Hunter

“Lizzie” Whacks the Bordens in a Creepy, Hard-Rock Witches’ Brew

Review:  Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s amazing what murdering your mom and dad can do for your outlook, for your self-esteem, and especially for your fashion sense. Back in a radically revisionist 1892, Lizzie Borden took an axe and, in a vigorous aerobic workout totaling 81 whacks, achieved all of these wholesome objectives. Or so Lizzie, a rock musical playing at Queens University in a devoutly raucous Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production, insists on telling us, piling onto the lurid Lizzie urban legend and her bloody skip-rope rhyme. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner began work on this musical a couple of years before the centennial of the infamous axe murders, and between 1990 and 2013, the enterprise grew from four songs to a smallish full-sized rock melodrama, taking in Alan Stevens Hewitt along the way to add in new music, lyrics, and orchestrations.

Victims Andrew and Abby Borden do not appear in this rock retelling. Concepts of calibrated punishment, let alone penance, are righteously bludgeoned here. The stage belongs to Lizzie, her elder sister Emma, the Bordens’ housemaid Bridget Sullivan, and Lizzie’s neighbor friend, Alice Russell. Emma also emerges as homicidally inclined, her animus mostly directed at her stepmom because Abby may be scheming to rob the sibs of their inheritance. That threat layers onto Lizzie’s resentment against her dad: there’s no doubt anymore that he molested Lizzie repeatedly. Similarly, suspicions that Alice was deeply in love with Lizzie are confirmed. Perhaps the most startling character makeover here is Bridget, who takes on Miss Danvers-like malevolence, goading Lizzie to the breaking point and slyly pocketing payoffs along the way.

If all this sounds like the lyricist/composers are leaning towards feminism, anarchy, and decadence, then you should also know that director Joanna Gerdy hasn’t pushed back. The writers haven’t mandated that musicians, directors, and designers all be women. That’s Gerdy’s idea, apparanetly. With the possible exception of set construction personnel, she has kept this production cordoned off as an exclusively Women-at-Work zone. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that the earmarks of testosterone have been banished. Emily Hunter’s choreography, unmistakably suggesting the Weird Sisters of Macbeth when the time comes to burn Lizzie’s bloodstained dress, at other times evokes the strut of heavy metal rockers. Carrie Cranford’s costume designs, prim and Victorian for the principals throughout Act 1, takes on a definite S&M edge after intermission. From the outset, the musicians’ costumes, hairdos, and makeup telegraphed where we were heading. Nor was there anything lacy or dainty about Kaylin Gess’s tabloid set design and how it synergized with Hallie Gray’s creepy, diabolical lighting.

Gerdy and musical director Jessica Borgnis have skillfully interwoven their respective primary goals, creeping us out and rocking our faces off. The thrust of the creepshow began before Actor’s Theatre executive director Chip Decker welcomed us to the company’s 30th season. Added on to the specified core group of players, Gerdy had Emma Lippiner darting around the mysteriously lit Hadley Theater as Young Lizzie, disappearing into the wings and then returning with a skip-rope. We also watched her ascend to the upper level of the Borden home where, flanked by Mom and Dad’s rooms, she ominously swung on a swing. Lippiner had not been instructed to portray a happy child, that was certain. Turn of the Screw or Stephen King were more likely what Gerdy was going for.

There’s certainly an affinity between Lizzie and the repressed teens of Spring Awakening in terms of the period and the style of the Actor’s Theatre production, which stakes its claim to freewheeling anachronisms with Young Lizzie’s plastic skiprope and continues with microphone stands and hand mikes for the ladies. What separates Lizzie from achieving similar greatness is the writers’ failure, despite all the juicy historical sources and suppositions available to them, to fully embrace the concept of a script – and their resolute insistence on developing only their title character.

Credit Gerdy and her cast with finding ways to close the gap. Even with her hair up and confined by a full-length dress, Katy Shepherd remained volatile and spellbinding throughout Act 1, a seething cauldron of sexual and homicidal impulses. The pathologically buttoned-down Kristin Jann-Fischer seemed even more likely to snap in the early going as Emma, but Shepherd suddenly leapfrogged her when Emma left Lizzie alone with her parents. Previous productions of Lizzie have established splatter zones in the theaters where they have played – and a patch of comic relief as melons or pumpkins were hacked. Gerdy doesn’t go for that kind of gore, but when we saw Shepherd’s face smeared and spattered red, a radical change had come over her. It was impossible to say whether that change had led to the violence or whether taking in the spectacle of what she had done had triggered that change. Shepherd seemed equally stunned and liberated by the crime.

By the time we returned from the break, Lizzie had let down her hair and totally changed her look, lounging lasciviously on the only stick of furniture that Gerdy allowed on the floor of the set. With the Weird Sisters episode, we realized that bacchanalian delight and wicked diablerie could reach maximum depth. The shaken demeanor that Shepherd switched on toward the end of Act 1 morphed into evil leers and insane eyerolls in Act 2. While some might find Shepherd’s vocal exploits on par with her acting, I’d say they come fairly close, which is high praise.

My reference to Miss Danvers will be clear enough to anybody who has read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or seen the Oscar-winning Hitchcock film. Yes, there was a Judith Anderson dimension to Shea’s performance as Bridget Sullivan as she prodded Lizzie toward catastrophe, and Shea seemed to haunt the Borden house far more than take care of it. She may have the best voice onstage, even if it doesn’t reach Shepherd’s stratospheric heights. Though she doesn’t evolve, she occasionally dominates. My suspicion about Alice Russell is that the writers didn’t consider changing her with the times. CiCi Kromah’s sweet, sweet performance might have seemed more satisfying back in 1990 – or certainly 1892 – when simply being an open lesbian could stamp you as a kind of small town outlaw. Today, Alice’s sincere love for Lizzie just struck me as a sentimental strain in the story, necessary as part of the sequence that triggered Lizzie’s homicidal rage but discarded afterwards during the crime investigation and Lizzie’s court trial.

Piloting from an electric keyboard, Borgnis drew searing vocals from the true lady outlaws onstage and the requisite smashing and slaying from her tight instrumental quintet, which unexpectedly includes a cello for those unexpected mellow moments. Best of the raucous vocal quartets was “Somebody Will Do Something” bringing us to intermission, but there were three or four of nearly equal power after we returned, including “Burn the Old Thing Up” and “Thirteen Days in Taunton.” Yes, it was noisy when everybody onstage was wailing and rocking, but Actor’s Theatre has always been savvy in measuring the difference between loud and deafening. Once again, they have it dialed in just right.

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Jane Shall Have Jill in DC’s Hip-Hop “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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By Perry Tannenbaum

If you have the notion that America’s liberal arts colleges are hidebound guardians of the past, mired in fossilizing traditions, you may wish to check out Davidson College’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unorthodox thinking was already obvious when I looked at the cover of the playbill. Instead of the Grecian colonnades or laurel wreathes you might expect for a lyrical Shakespearean comedy that mostly transpires within 25 miles of Athens, the cameo portrait of Fairy Queen Titania and the bewitched Bottom is done in comic strip style. All of the basic info – title, playwright, director, dates – is set in that impossibly perfect hand-lettering that worshipers of Superman and Batman grew up with. Furthermore, entering Duke Family Performance Hall, I was already tipped off to the fact that director Ann Marie Costa would be infusing the Bard’s text with plenty of hip-hop rhythms and dance, thanks to the ministrations of beatmaker Mighty DJ DR and spoken word artists Boris “Bluz” Rogers and Carlos Robson.

Given the problematical acoustics of the Duke, I was fairly anxious about what I might need to contend with in the style – and the beat – of this production concept. But there was more. In the opening scene, when Egeus petitions the heroic Duke Theseus in hopes that he will force his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, the groom he intends for her, there were a couple of radical switches. Hermia’s father was nowhere to be found, replaced by Egeia, a heartless mother. Perhaps more shocking, Hermia’s true love, Lysander, had also disappeared, replaced by Lydia. If Joe Gardner’s elegantly simple set design and Martha Making’s contemporary costumes weren’t enough, Lydia’s plan to elope with Hermia and marry her assured me that we weren’t in ancient Athens anymore.

I would have been dizzy with disorientation if these alterations had been delivered with hip-hop embroidering, but the lovers’ couplets and the mechanicals’ prosaic rehearsal scene afterwards were plainly spoken. As so often happens, the uniqueness of a Midsummer Night’s Dream production becomes manifest when we leave Athens behind and plunge into the nearby woods. Back in 1987, when NC Shakespeare was still alive and touring, Hermia and Lysander traipsed into the forest carrying their own Samsonite luggage. In 2003, deposed Charlotte Repertory Theatre founder Steve Umberger found refuge at Theatre Charlotte, bringing Cirque du Soleil acrobat Karl Baumann with him – to go where no Puck had gone before. Costa says in her director’s notes that she was inspired by a recent visit to New York City, where she saw spontaneous performances by street musicians, beatmakers, and break dancers in the city’s public parks. The nocturnal woods is exactly the right place for disorientation to be encouraged.

So as soon as we first saw Puck conversing with the First Fairy, we got a steady flow of hip-hop movement, choreographed Emily Hunter – with plenty of urban attitude – accompanying the hip-hop reaffirmations that most of the fairy dialogue is rhymed. Tatiana Pless was so vivacious as the Fairy that I presumed she was Puck for a few moments, but not to worry, Pless got more play and multiple costume changes as Mustardseed and Moonshine. Graham Marema was quite engaging as Puck after her comparatively subdued arrival, but it was Colin Bye’s bravura exploits as Puck’s master, King Oberon, that enabled the whole hip-hop concept to click. His tall frame topped with a pom knit hat, Bye became a living breathing testimonial to the efficacy of YouTube hip-hop tutorials. He rarely moved from one spot onstage to another without a lithe moonwalking glide – nearly on point, increasing the impact of his lanky height. The sensation Bye made as Oberon was only enhanced by the starchy, stiff, and proper impression he made in his other role as Theseus in the opening scene.dsc_0758

While discord between Hermia and her mom unsettles Athens, there is parallel discord in the fairy kingdom, where the proud Queen Titania is denying custody of an adorable kidnapped boy – and conjugal visitations! – to King Oberon. To bring peace to both kingdoms, Oberon must teach Titania a lesson and restore Demetrius to his previous fiancée, Helena. Oberon dispatches Puck to retrieve a faraway flower whose juice can be made into a love potion that can be applied to a sleeper’s eyes. When the sleeper awakes, he or she will fall in love with the first person or animal that comes into sight. Oberon himself applies the potion to Titania, but fortunately, he deputizes Puck to find Demetrius and apply that same potion so that he’ll become enamored with Helena again when he awakes. Half of the fun we experience in the woods results from Puck messing up and applying the potion to Lydia instead of Demetrius. The other half comes from what Puck gets right, transforming the incorrigible Nick Bottom into a man with a donkey’s head in the middle of the mechanicals’ inept rehearsal. That’s who – or what – Titania sees when she first awakes.

After seeing Midsummer numerous times before, I found Kanise Thompson a little less shrewish than most Titanias because of the boogie in her movement and the hip-hop delights of her fairy entourage. Arrayed in the funky garments of the hip-hop culture, this entourage combined to make the queen’s bedtime the most regal event of the evening. Thompson did reappear later in the evening as Hippolyta, whose nuptials with Theseus were another regal event, but her best moments came when she heaped love on the repellent Bottom and when she sensuously reconciled with Oberon. Although he couldn’t compete with the most commanding Bottoms that I’ve seen, Sam Giberga had some bodacious moments as Nick, particularly when he was vaunting his versatility as an actor and getting vamped by the queen. Louder braying, please!dsc_1063

The whole hip-hop concept went so well for me that acclimating to the gender and sexuality alterations presented more of a challenge. Sarah Kostoryz as Helena may have more reason to be offended by Lydia’s advances, but the text offers no guidance, and she reacted as if a Lysander were still pursuing her. I’ve also seen more vicious taunting of her shorter rival Hermia when their antipathy heats up. As Hermia, Izem Ustun could give the most conventional performance among the lovers, for it made no difference who her admirers were when both of them abandoned her. Uztun swam bravely against the handicap of her relative conventionality, no more sensitive to Hermia’s shortness than Kostoryz’s provocations warranted.

Soft-pedaling her altered sexuality, Blaire Ebert was a very courtly and principled Lydia, and she tore after Demetrius fearlessly. Now when Lydia’s conflict with Demetrius escalated from verbal to physical, I could perceive some difficulties in the audience. As Lydia and Demetrius rolled over one another on the forest floor, there seemed to be a mixture of shocked silence, nervous laughter, and redoubled laughter from various sections of the house. There was no avoiding it: the lesbian Lydia’s attack on the straight Demetrius often had the look of lovemaking as they lingered on the floor. Similar to Ebert, Ed Pritchard portrayed Demetrius as if nothing had changed, a problematical proposition when your fiancée turns out to be gay or bisexual, but the text offers no more guidance to our Demetrius than it does for Helena or Lydia. I would have expected all four of the lovers – especially during the taunting and fighting – to have more fun with the newly hatched absurdities.

The cuts that Costa applied to the script may have shortened the mortals’ time onstage more than the fairies’, or maybe the extra juice from the hip-hop idiom just made the fairies more exciting and accessible. I’m sure that I’ve seen Midsummer productions where the mechanicals don’t perform their Bergamask after their travesty of a tragedy, and I’ve also seen productions where the fairy king and queen don’t return. Returning both of these to the final scene added to the sense of revelry, merriment, and magic. When the last huge exits went to King Oberon and Queen Titania instead of the three newly wedded Athenian couples, the sudden hush when Puck was left all alone onstage was all the more poignant and dramatic. After such an unusual, energetic staging, Merema had no difficulty at all in coaxing us to give her our hands.