When the 11th Hour Theatre Company premieres the goth-tinged "Lizzie" on Jan. 16 at Neighborhood House in Old City, the rocked-out musical comes with a boatload of history, both real and imagined.
Long before Charlie Manson’s dark angels and famed murderesses like Florida highway killer Aileen Wuornos, there was Lizzie Borden (1860-1927), the Fall River, Massachusetts, woman who won notoriety and infamy for being tried and acquitted for the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother. Not only did the (assumed) lady killer get her own rope-skipping nursery rhyme that was made popular after the trial (“Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”), she eventually became the subject of two famous television movies: "The Legend of Lizzie Borden," a 1975 ABC network film with Elizabeth Montgomery, the comic star of the legendarily campy "Bewitched" and 2014’s Lifetime Network "Lizzie Borden Took an Ax" with Christina Ricci in the title role.
“We watched that Elizabeth Montgomery movie as research and found it fascinating,” says Alex Keiper, the dynamic local stage actress and vocalist who has the title role in "Lizzie." The musical stage play touched by all manner of cabaret, folk and goth rock was co-written by one time local musician Alan Stevens Hewitt (The Low Road) along with fellow composers/lyricists Steven Cheslik-Demeyer and Tim Maner.
“The overall Montgomery movie wasn't great, in my opinion, but the Lizzie experts we spoke to from Fall River said that it's the only movie about her and the subsequent trial that has real merit.” Keiper also says that those same Lizzie-ologists were thrilled about the 11th Hour musical, because many of the lyrics and dialogue were taken directly from the original court testimony of 1893, making the play spot-on in terms of accuracy.
“The musical really highlights the difference between the external and internal life of the characters, one where Lizzie is trapped in a situation and has no way out,” says Keiper, referring to the trial’s talk of mental and sexual abuse to the young Borden. “The abuse she suffered, from a very young age, stunted her mental and emotional maturity, so [playing her] can go from being soft, childlike and hopeful in a soothing folk song, to being a loose cannon or a wild animal with a heavy metal motif. I know it sounds like masochism but it's actually really fun discovering how she gets from one emotional extreme to the next. I'll say, at a time when many of us 'liberal snowflakes' are hoping to smash the patriarchy, it is very fun playing a character who gets to, literally, do just that.”
That’s easy for Keiper to say, as the young Philly actress who plays Lizzie Borden has had a real knack for portraying quirky, aggressive characters, especially looking at her last several roles of 2016 (the dysfunctional punk-folkie Mash in the Arden’s "Stupid F— Bird" in particular) with hard-core roles in 2017 plays such as "Buzzer" and "Hand to God."
“I love playing characters that are misunderstood,” says Keiper with a diabolical laugh. “That was absolutely the case in "Stupid F— Bird" with Mash, who struggled with deep depression and lack of self-worth. I'm looking forward to finding ways into the other roles I'll get to play this year as well, with the odd ball puppet enthusiast Jessica in "Hand to God" and the hopeful, though sometimes shortsighted, Suzy in "Buzzer."
So where does Lizzie Borden fit in to her resume?
“Well, Lizzie lives in a more extreme world than all of them,” says Keiper comparing her ax-wielding, heavy metal riffing title character to a history of roles that includes parts in 11th Hour’s whack musical "Field Hockey Hot." “The rest of the characters that I have done are contemporary and have the benefits that women in today’s society have: the right to speak their mind, own property, make decisions for themselves, etc. … Lizzie doesn't have any of those rights. I don't want to give too much away, but the journey we go on with Lizzie, leading up to the murders of her father and stepmother, may have audiences sympathizing with her in a way that they would not expect. In our play, she and her sister have been abused by the father in many ways for most of their life, so for me, her stakes are just higher.”
The only thing higher than the stakes in this "Lizzie" is the body count.
The 11th Hour Theatre Company’s "Lizzie" opens on Monday, Jan. 16, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St.