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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 19 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 38
Lizzie who? Over 120 years later, accused axe-murderess still fascinates
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Lizzie who? Over 120 years later, accused axe-murderess still fascinates

by Doug Hamilton - SGN Contributing Writer

BLOOD RELATIONS
SOUND THEATRE COMPANY
CORNISH PLAYHOUSE STUDIO
Through September 27


There are two types of celebrity murder trials. One type is a murder trial of a known celebrity, such as OJ Simpson in 1994, or quite recently, Oscar Pistorius in South Africa. These men were already famous before being accused.

Then there are the celebrities who earned their infamy by virtue of accusation. In Seattle, we have our own Amanda Knox. There have already been at least two films and 12 books about the 2007 murder of her British roommate in Perugia, Italy. Though acquitted, her innocence is still in dispute. And, there was Lizzie Borden, who was a relative nobody until a double homicide launched her into the headlines of 1892.

A recent study by the United States Department of Justice showed males commit the vast majority of homicides in the United States, representing 90% of the total number of offenders. Perhaps this is why it is hard to recollect the case of a woman already being famous, then accused of murder. For an unknown male to become a celebrity murderer, most likely he would have to be a serial murderer or political assassin. The bar for females is lower. The novelty of a female at the heart of a murder mystery seems the formula for celebrity.



Over 120 years after she was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden still commands the type of lurid speculation that causes criminologists and curiosity seekers to pore over the details of the unresolved case. Over the last century, the story of Lizzie Borden has been treated in stage, song, opera, ballet, television, movies and prose.

Lizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her father forty whacks
When the job was nicely done
She gave her father forty-one


The sing-song rhyme went viral on sidewalks the world over as a lilting accompaniment for children playing games of jump rope. In truth, Lizzie's stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows; her father suffered 11 blows. If the youngest generation has never heard of Lizzie Borden, it may have to do with the fading popularity of jump rope songs. If you check YouTube, you can find rap lyrics proclaiming the innocence of Amanda Knox. These have yet to hit the sidewalks.



Award-winning Sound Theatre Company's production of the play, Blood Relations, written by Sharon Pollock in 1981, is a tense thriller based on the historical facts and speculation surrounding Lizzie Borden. Ten years after her acquittal, Lizzie is pressed by her lover, based on accomplished stage and screen actress Nance O'Neil, to reveal what happened. As part of a 'game,' Lizzie has her lover re-enact the events leading up to the brutal bludgeoning. The actress/Lizzie's lover assumes the role of Lizzie in the play within a play that follows, and Lizzie plays the part of the maid.

The same questions still follow Lizzie Borden that now haunt Amanda Knox. Did she or didn't she commit the horribly vicious and bloody crime? Who was she really? Was it just a game?

A botched police investigation failed to turn up any physical evidence directly linking Lizzie Borden to the killings. The jury found that even though there was strong motive (her father's sizable fortune, valued at over $7 million in today's dollars, went to her and her sister Emma) and ample opportunity to commit the crime, they could not imagine a woman of Lizzie Borden's stature committing such atrocities. Public opinion was not so kind. Even though she was free to enjoy the sizable fortune she shared with her sister, the specter of the bloody crime followed Lizzie Borden throughout the rest of her life.



I've always been a distant fan of those Russian nesting dolls. The shiny lacquered dolls painted in a folkloric manner, that stack smaller and smaller versions of themselves within themselves. This production of Blood Relations is a lot like those dolls, as layers of the legend wrap around or peel off in the narrative. The actress (Peggy Gannon) playing the actress/Lizzie's lover and Lizzie and the actress (Caitlin Frances) playing Lizzie and the maid take turns trading off in the same role, like different sizes of the same stacking doll. The pieces fit precisely, and unsettlingly so, because, of course, the reenactment is just a game to Lizzie. The result is a psychological dissociation from the crime, leaving the audience lost once again for any concrete answers to this enduring mystery.



I enjoyed the cast and direction of the play immensely. Each actor carried the weight of their role with precision and believability. Jody McCoy as the matronly, partially-deaf stepmother, Abby Borden, gave members of the audience a feeling that they, too, might feel the need to take a whack or two at her. By virtue of her marriage, she is the queen bee of the small and stifling Victorian house, a role Lizzie (Which one? It doesn't matter.) chafes under and covets for herself. Bill Higham, as Lizzie's father, embodies the sternness of the gender roles of that time, where he is the fading patron and king of the household.

As much as Lizzie could wrap Mr. Borden around her finger, other members of the court, such as Abby Borden's brother, Harry (Joseph P. McCarthy), can sway his financial decisions in their favor. Lizzie is convinced (perhaps rightly) that Abby's family is out to secure the family fortune, and leave her and her spinster sister, Emma (Alyssa Keene) to fend for themselves in the event of the death their father.

John Murray as Dr. Patrick (Lizzie's pseudo-suitor) was delightful as the lecherous, but continually rebuffed Irishman doctor, who occasionally visited Lizzie Borden. Lizzie enjoyed shocking the neighbors by being seen with this married man.



The play seems to be written to solicit sympathy for Lizzie Borden. We see her trapped in the Victorian era's stifling sex roles, unmarried at 35 years old, and still living at home with her family. She refuses to entertain the notion of marrying her way out of the household. We see her ask for work and be refused by her father. We find out that shortly before the murders, Mr. Borden took an axe and murdered Lizzie's beloved pet pigeons. Certainly, we see why she might want to kill her father and stepmother.

But, let's be honest. If Lizzie Borden indeed is the monster the nursery rhyme says she is, she was in no way justified in committing what looks like a brutal crime based on greed. However, even if she is innocent, she seems a spoiled, self-absorbed brat, lacking the imagination to burrow herself out of her situation without a whole lot of money.

The play speculates that she and the actress were Lesbian lovers. This, like the murder itself, lacks any real evidence to substantiate it. If Lizzie were a Lesbian, you probably will not find her cropping up during LGBTQ History Month any time soon. Our side sees no reason to rush out and claim her. Our Lizzie would have run away to Alaska and started a new life in the theater with her Lesbian lover, instead of staying stuck in the purgatory of a Victorian parlor in Fall River.



Remaining performances of Sound Theatre Company's Blood Relations are September 19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27 at 7:30 p.m. and September 21 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets: $25, $15 for students with ID; (800) 838-3006 or lizzieborden.brownpapertickets.com.

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