Murder in the theatre

Lizzie

It’s a story you’ve probably heard a thousand times before. Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with girl. Girl tells lover the story of how she brutally murdered her parents with a garden implement.

Okay, so maybe not, but that’s what makes Sharon Pollack’s retelling of the Lizzie Borden story worth watching. "Blood Relations" is an uncommon, unexpected dive into the Borden household before the murders of the Borden parents. But instead of a straight chronology, the play opts to weave through realities and identities by having Lizzie watch her own story through flashbacks, as her companion acts out Lizzie’s part. It’s unlike anything you’re going to find on TV or in the movies this season.

The play is this year’s honors production, an annual opportunity for students in the theatre department to direct, stage and act in their own show. "Blood Relations" is directed by Keegan Bushey, a senior theatre major. Bushey said he pushed for this selection because he thought it would showcase strong female leads and bring a new genre to Oswego State.

"I liked the idea of a dramatic thriller," Bushey said. "I hadn’t seen one here before and it was the right time to do one."

Bushey said the key attraction for audience members is that the play "doesn’t ask, ‘did she do it?’ but ‘what would you do?’"

The story begins when Lizzie Borden and her actress girlfriend spend a day in Lizzie’s home. The Actress starts down an old line of inquires into Lizzie’s guilt or innocence and Lizzie, who’d rather not talk about the event, decides to play a game to get at the truth.

She leads her lover through a series of memories from her life before the murders; Lizzie is ensconced in the safety of her role as the Borden’s maid Bridget O’Sullivan and the Actress plays Lizzie in all of her reminiscences. What follows is a psychological thriller meets murder mystery where both the crime and the killer are a foregone conclusion. What the audience is really excavating in their journey through Lizzie’s memory is the motive for the killings—and from that, the extent to which the crimes can be justified.

Jessica Quindlen hits all the right notes in her portrayal of young Lizzie Borden, living in a repressive household which does not value her. She plays the character as a Randian hero, emphasizing Lizzie’s willfulness, but also her success in anything upon which she puts her mind. In Quindlen, you see that Lizzie is the only one living by voluntary, self-selected values—the only one whose life has its own freely-chosen meaning. You can believe it when young Lizzie says she wants to make her own money and to live out in the world on her own, but through Quindlen, you can also feel Lizzie’s pain when these ladders to freedom are cut out from under her.

Knate Roy also gets high marks for his performance as Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden. Roy gives patriarchy the soft face that’s appropriate to explain Lizzie’s undying love of her father. But he also plays well at the old man’s sternness, which meant Lizzie could not be entirely liberated until he was killed too.

The two actors get the parent-child relationship exactly right. In one particularly strong scene, Mr. Borden confronts his daughter alone and castigates her for not conforming to society. Lizzie resists the whole time, and the audience can stand right alongside her in the feeling of being put on the spot. Quindlen gives you an idea about what it’s like to be different in an era where that’s not encouraged, and Roy projects a sense of society’s expectations of a woman like Lizzie. Yet, while Roy’s character may be heavy in this scene, his motivation is well understood, if not totally empathized with.

Still, some casting choices were less successful. Daniel Distasio as Harry Windgate gets the character all wrong by creating a one-dimensional villain. He scowls almost the entire time he’s on stage, and brings the same angry energy to every scene. In reality, a conman such as Windgate would have to be more charismatic and have more fine-tuned people skills in order to pull off his heist.

Courtney Bennett is a great choice to play the older version of Lizzie; she genuinely emotes the unsteady ease of someone who has liberated herself from an oppressive circumstance by making a few difficult, unsavory choices. The trouble comes when the audience is forced to try to connect the two Lizzies by virtue of them being the same person. It’s difficult to understand how the young, hard-nosed Lizzie, played by Quindlen, who presses up against life whenever she is offered the chance, could relax into the more docile and accepting version portrayed by Bennett.

With the stage set in the middle of the theatre room, the audience is literally feet away from the action. Because the eye can see more detail when the thing observed is closer to it, every undone button on the back of a dress, every misplaced seam, and every mishandled prop takes the audience out of the plot and into their own heads, correcting the mistakes with the visual equivalent of a red pen. On balance, the staging is the right choice for the show, but at times the actors’ closeness strained your suspension of disbelief.

Overall, the play is worth seeing as student director Bushey does a great job piecing together an interesting arrangement of the puzzle that is the Borden legend. The actors turn in performances that keep you invested in the story as you ask yourself why Lizzie Borden did what she did, and just maybe she wasn’t right about the whole thing.

"Blood Relations" will be performed Nov. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. in the Lab Theatre of Tyler Hall. There will be a final 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Nov.22. Tickets cost $7 for students, $10 for senior citizens and $12 for all others.