Tag Archives: Katy Shepherd

“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.

Advertisements

40 Whacks and Some Heavy-Metal Slaying

Preview: Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

When we first learn about Lizzie Borden, it’s through an antique schoolyard rhyme, and there’s no doubt. Miss Borden was an axe murderer – and not a dainty one. Forty whacks for Mom, a pause for reflection… then 41 for Dad. But in the real world back in 1892, Borden was acquitted of the gory double murders that had happened at her home in Fall River, Massachusetts. And the actual number of whacks, for Lizzie’s dad and stepmother combined, was less than 30.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty of her guilt – and the poetic license taken in her song – Lizzie remains legendary and the prime suspect. But the action hero of a hard rock musical? Writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer sorta had that idea in 1990. Putting together four songs and staging their experimental rock theatre production in SoHo, the duo originally called their confection Lizzie Borden: An American Musical.

Over the next 13 years, the work was reworked, fitfully revived, and workshopped. New songs were tacked on, the skeletal storyline was fleshed out, and Alan Stevens Hewitt joined the writing team. As the work grew to a full-fledged two-act musical – or at least a rock concert musical – the title continued to become leaner. Long story short, Lizzie is now rockin’ on the Queens U campus, transitioning from previews to its official Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opening this week.

From its Borden beginnings, Lizzie has always featured four women in the singing roles. Aside from the legendary slayer, there’s Lizzie’s elder sister Emma, next door neighbor Alice Russell, and housemaid Bridget Sullivan. Actor’s Theatre is taking it way further – presenting an all-woman edition. The sextet of instrumental slayers joining the cast onstage at Hadley Theater will all be women. Ditto the design team, the choreographer, the music director, the stage manager, and the stage director.

Cue Joanna Gerdy. Despite her lofty reputation as an actress, co-founder of Chickspeare, and eminent teaching doyenne, Gerdy has strayed into crass and bloody musicals before, directing Little Shop of Horrors and Bonnie and Clyde. You might think that an actress lauded for her dramatic performances in The Miracle Worker, Macbeth and Our Town would be more powerfully drawn to Joan Baez than Joan Jett.

You’d be right. But the slashing score of Lizzie still grabs Gerdy.

“I love the music in this show,” she gushes. “And what’s not to love? Think Heart, Joan Jett, The Runaways, Stevie Nicks…you get the idea! Lizzie runs the gamut from catchy melodic storytelling, to outrageous punk rock anthems, to evocative ballads. There are head-banging moments juxtaposed with gut-wrenching stillness. There are lyrics straight out of Macbeth, and in fact, a Weird Sister vibe throughout.”

The skip-rope song was all that had ever grabbed Gerdy about Borden when Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker asked her to take the reins. She was happy to find that the familiar rhyme starts off the evening, setting the creepy tone. But it still wouldn’t be worth the effort for Gerdy if things didn’t get serious before they got gory.

Lizzie unlocks the doors in the House of Borden, shows us what may have been going on behind them, and we can’t help but feel for this trapped, desperate, powerless girl,” Gerdy explains. “Women were living under a harsh Victorian moral code, and Lizzie Borden was likely trapped inside a house hiding even more heinous goings-on. For me, this play gives powerful voice to women in a time when they were often voiceless and powerless.”

So the biggest mystery that Lizzie will explore, with ever-increasing decibels, isn’t the question of if this New Englander committed these horrific crimes but why. What could have brought so much stress and pressure on poor Lizzie that there was only this path forward? Obviously, it will be an accumulation of actions and events.

“From the moment the audience walks in,” says Gerdy, “they should feel totally creeped out, unsettled, off-balance…that feeling that something bad is already happening, and it’s going to get worse. And when it does, it will rock your face off! As the story intensifies and the Patriarchy is smashed, the women are empowered to literally shed the trappings of their Victorian entrapment…and they become rock stars!”

Shedding a walking cane to play the role, Katy Shepherd can closely identify with Lizzie’s feelings of powerlessness. After splashing down sensationally in Charlotte, romping around ImaginOn in the title role of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse for Children’s Theatre, following that up with more grownup triumphs in A Woman of No Importance and Rock of Ages (her Actor’s Theatre debut), Shepherd’s sensational 2015 was followed by a nightmarish 2016. Stricken by celiac disease coupled with severe anemia, Shepherd underwent surgery five times, the last on December 29. The surgery before that had left her bedridden for a month – not even allowed to sit. Now that’s trapped.

“Every day I can walk, let alone perform, is such a gift!” Shepherd declares. “American Idiot [with Actor’s Theatre last season] was my first show back with a healthy body, and our wonderful choreographer Tod Kubo even remarked on how my dancing had even improved since our last show together. I feel so present and grateful being healthy, and any role that I play now will have a touch of that.”

Gerdy hadn’t met Shepherd before auditions and had no knowledge of her backstory. Knowing where Katy had come from to get there had nothing to do with why Gerdy was impressed. Seeing her in the moment was enough.

“Katy’s vocal power blew me away!” Gerdy remembers. “At the auditions, I found myself spending a lot of time watching what people were doing when they weren’t singing or performing. And that’s what tipped the scales for me: She was ALWAYS compelling, even, or perhaps especially, in the moments when she was listening and just being. She made me care about Lizzie and want to watch her, listen to her, and root for her. And those eyes! She can shift from vulnerable to vixen in the blink of an eye – literally.”

The spark for Shepherd comes from how different this supposed murderess is from her, the range of emotions she is called upon to project – and some pretty insane vocals.

“Every song is one to brace yourself for,” Shepherd warns. “This music delivers in a way I have never experienced before. From abuse, to murder, to seduction, to betrayal – it’s all there. And it all ROCKS.”

Nor is Shepherd through battering down obstacles that lie in her path. Taking on Lizzie, she had only three off days in July, and before rehearsing seven days a week until 10 or 11pm at night, she’s holding down a full-time day job teaching at Children’s Theatre’s summer camp. Gerdy has been keeping track, imagining the extra time Shepherd devotes to learning lines, absorbing the music, and refining her portrait of a legend.

“And she has done all of this during her first pregnancy!” Gerdy marvels. “She’s a force; I’m in awe of her, honestly, and am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to work with and get to know her.”

So we finally arrive at the question no journalist can shirk when confronting an esteemed actor who has penetrated into the deepest recesses of Lizzie Borden’s soul and lived there for over a month. To put it rather coarsely: Was Lizzie a lezzie?!?

“Considering that there are only women in this show,” Shepherd shoots back, “and you’ve always got to have a love story, I’ll let you do the math!”

Making and Faking Love

Theater reviews: Stage Kiss and Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens

Returning from intermission at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of Stage Kiss, I was strangely disoriented when I saw the set for Act 2 of Sarah Ruhl’s comedy. For most of Act 1, our protagonists were the leading players in a revival of a sentimental drama, The Last Kiss. “She” had been Ada Wilcox, a happily married woman given one month to live, and “He” was Johnny Lowell, the love of her life, reunited with his long-lost love through the generosity of Ada’s husband.

Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

  • Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

He and She had also had a youthful romance earlier in their acting careers, before director Adrian Schwalbach had unwittingly united them by casting them as the leads in this sudsy revival. By the end of the play’s brief run, He and She have fallen back in love for real, despite the fact that She now has a for-real husband and teenage daughter. So they skip the closing night cast party, the better to consummate their rekindled romance.

Somehow when I saw the rundown Greenwich Village apartment where the lovers adjourned, I momentarily forgot that He was not Johnny Lowell, the celebrated sculptor who flew in from Sweden to be at Ada’s bedside. No, He’s merely one of the legions of fine actors strewn around Manhattan who have sacrificed the niceties of middle class comfort to pursue their art.

Of course, what Ruhl very much wishes to demonstrate is that, while kissing nine times at each performance eight times a week for four weeks – after additional weeks of rehearsal — She and He have also let themselves forget that they are not Ada and Johnny. Or at least they have allowed themselves to become confused about it.

If you’ve ever immersed yourself in a major stage role for a couple of months, you already know how easy it is to slip away from the role you’re playing in life to the one you play onstage. Shuttling back and forth is an occupational hazard for actors — or a welcome escape.

Watching the rehearsals for The Last Kiss, plus a Schwalbach opus that occupies us in Act 2, we discover additional layers that Ruhl has woven into her comedy. For one, He has richly earned the squalor he lives in, for He is a wretched actor in both of these wretched plays-within-the-play. In The Last Kiss, He is understudied by Kevin, a gay actor who is even more wretched, noticeably uncomfortable with all that hetero kissing.

We can also see that She is not being ensnared by a web of glamor as she endures Kevin’s awkwardness, an injury to her co-star, and eventually an injury of her own. In the final Actor’s Theatre production at their Stonewall Street location, we see the artifice that goes into theatre on a stage that is almost stripped bare of scenery.

But there must be artistry if we’re to believe we’re really watching an incompetent director directing wretched actors in wretched plays and that an able actress, after a long hiatus, can return to the stage and be so seduced by the experience. Our director, Ann Marie Costa, helps us to navigate, deftly calibrating the inadequacy we see from Robert Lee Simmons as He/Johnny and the wild incompetence we see from Chip Decker as Kevin.

Decker gives us more excess than Simmons, who gives plenty, so it’s quite clear that Costa has them both shunning restraint. When it comes to Schwalbach, a director who devoutly avoids prescribing how his actors should act, Costa no doubt found that Ruhl was taunting her into decisiveness. What we get from Dennis Delamar, then, is just a slight winking acknowledgement that directors’ sanctimonious abdication of their directing responsibilities is absolutely absurd, particularly when a script is bad — or you’re also the playwright.

When we first see her, She doesn’t give the best audition for Ada. In fact, She arrives so late that auditions are actually over. From the outset, Schwalbach’s laxity is working in her favor, so Lisa Hugo must constantly be deciding how much or how little of She’s fallibility should be added to all the shoddiness and incompetence surrounding her. I can almost hear Costa telling Hugo, “go with your instincts,” echoing Schwalbach. Otherwise, how would Hugo’s performance come off so naturally without ever seeming to be calculated?

It’s easy enough to track Mark Sutch in this cast, playing both Ada’s and She’s husband, but Emily Ramirez and Katy Shepherd conspire on a flipflop. Ramirez plays Ada’s daughter before returning as He’s bong-puffing girlfriend after the break, while Shepherd goes from Ada’s maid to She’s daughter. Sutch gets to be the first grownup in the room, catching up with the wayward actress, a welcome infusion of sanity. Yet even more welcome, in an undeniably cerebral comedy, is the real emotion that Shepherd brings us as the abandoned child.

Ultimately, those family moments aren’t intended to stick with us. That’s why Ada and Johnny have names but the actors who play them have none at all. What Ruhl has written, masquerading as a comedy, is a meditation on the nature of theatre and playacting.

The anger of Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens can be difficult to perceive at times. Surveying the foibles of our city, state and nation since last year’s 11th Glower, producer Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn came up with craft beer, airline bonus miles, Rocket Mortgages, Johnny Manziel and food chains as fresh new objects of satire. Win or lose, the Panthers and the Hornets always get a song parody apiece at Booth Playhouse, so that segment was a black hole in this year’s satirical cavalcade. In the ongoing lampooning of Morris Jenkins and Bobby, their latenight vigils have now blossomed into bromance.

Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

  • Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

So a backhanded thanks must go to the angry hens in Raleigh who hurriedly passed HB2 and to our lame-brained governor who hurriedly signed it. The bathroom hysteria and the nationwide backlash were the sparks that Kahn sorely needed to make Squawks squawk. Patrick Ratchford, who responds to Mr. Jenkins’ overtures so repellently as Bobby, reprises his Governor McCrory impersonation in “This Is So Unfair, Man.” This parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the second of the night, allows McCrory to catalogue the businesses that have voiced disapproval of HB2 and scrapped plans to move here. And “Let ‘Em Pee,” parodying the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” underscores the stupidity of it all.

If anyone stole the show from Ratchford, it was Robbie Jaeger, who took flight as Mr. Jenkins in a weird Dirty Dancing mashup. Weirder yet was his stint as a crazed Charlotte trolley car driver in “Helter Streetcar,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

It’s a political year, but I can’t say that the pokes at survivors Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are as pointed as those aimed at the dearly departed Ted Cruz. I had to wonder whether the annual filmed appearances by Pat McCrory could possibly continue.

The answer came early as McCrory began his customary video on the five screens spread around the Booth – and was emphatically stopped almost as soon as he started, with a classy simulation of Gov Pat being flushed down a toilet. One of the best moments ever for Squawks.