Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Color and Light Theatre Ensemble's LIZZIE is Rage Rock at its Finest

L-R: Jenni Marie Lopez, Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha
LaBrecque. All photos by Corwin Evans

How much rage would a person need to feel to kill two people with 29 whacks of an axe? The short answer is, a lot. That’s the number Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby actually sustained in 1892 - not the 81 immortalized in this haunting nursery rhyme.

“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

To this day, no one knows who committed the murders although Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie, has always been guilty in the court of public opinion. She was acquitted at trial but rumors followed her to her grave. What we do know is that a crime of passion enacted with this much violence can only mean there is more to the story.

LIZZIE, by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, draws its own conclusions about what might have fueled Lizzie Borden’s rage to the point of committing murder, and Color & Light Theatre Ensemble brings that rage to the forefront in a ballsy 90-minute musical character study that is part throat-ripping rock concert, part riveting theatre invention. This is rage rock at its finest and the four women who tell the story have the vocal ability and acting intensity to deliver a moving tale with unrelenting ferocity.

Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

Revelations of incest, a forbidden lesbian love affair, and a stepmother with no love for her husband’s children make up the bones of the piece. Director Joanna Syiek’s minimalist staging shows a wicked sense of humor and an ability to create visuals that are streamlined but set to stun.

Poisonous steam billows from an innocent tea cup, a tangle of dead pigeons cling to a bloodstained sheet, and the meaty flesh of two watermelons makes an enactment of the murders as deliciously spoof-worthy as it is sobering.

An act break would have come in handy at this climactic moment to help facilitate the tonal shift (and ensuing cleanup). As presented, the current version of the piece is done without an intermission. I’m not certain that’s the right choice.

Leslie Rubino

At the center of this macabre universe is an explosive Leslie Rubino who plays Lizzie. Slight of stature and sporting a punk pompadour with a blood red streak, as if to presage later events, we see both her vulnerability and the rage that erupts when the weight of betrayal finally cracks her open. It is a charismatic high-voltage performance, the kind that matters when you consider that stories about sexual abuse and men attempting to suppress a woman’s voice are still staples of the modern daily news cycle.

In her orbit are three equally fierce women: older sister, Emma (Brooke Van Grinsven); next door neighbor and Lizzie’s eventual lover, Alice (Jenni Marie Lopez); and Bridget, the Borden’s cheeky Irish maid (Samantha LaBreque). Van Grinsven attacks her role with the intensity of a bomb going off and never lets up. Lopez lends balance to the driving assault on your senses in softer scenes with Lizzie but lets it rip when the emotional angst of a number requires her to grind it out. LaBrecque is an amusing addition to the foursome playing a servant with a mind of her own. She’s smarter than she lets on and her face is a running commentary on what is really happening at any given moment.

L-R: Brooke Van Grinsven, Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

The venue is Resident LA, a club in the DTLA arts district, which adds to the rock concert feel of the evening. It’s the right place with the right atmosphere and it also means the band, led by musical director Jennifer Lin, makes as powerful a statement as the characters. There are only four of them - Lin on keys, Johanna Chase on bass, Carlos Flores on guitar and Nicole Marcus on drums but they sound like they’re opening up the gates of hell. Besides, who doesn’t love seeing a girl drummer?

Of course, the sound is loud but I appreciated how well the sound team (Corwin Evans-sound design, Eric Huff-sound engineer, James Graham & Kyle Ormiston-sound mix & tech) created a balance that made it still possible to understand the lyrics. That’s incredibly important because the production is sung-through and those songs tell the story.

Tyler Ledon’s lighting is dramatic and quite saturated. Costumes by Samantha Teplitz do more than simply set the period. They reflect a great deal about each character. For example, Emma is cinched in so tightly at the waist that it seems she’ll burst at any moment from the pent-up rage within her, and Lizzie starts the show in demure black and white but a flash of her tights foreshadows a future Lizzie you know won’t be content to live by the constraints of Victorian repression.

As the costumes slowly transform to contemporary rock-inspired looks, the show also begins to transcend time and place and connect the sins of the past with the sins of the present. It may be subtext but we can hear it loud and clear. We’re pissed as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

All of it adds up to a production that doesn’t compromise its message or back off in the way it delivers it. It’s an altogether gripping experience.

September 14-29, 2018
Color and Light Theatre Ensemble @ Resident LA
428 S. Hewitt St., Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tickets and info:
For more info about Resident:

Brooke Van Grinsven and Samantha LaBrecque

Leslie Rubino and Samantha LaBrecque

Jenni Marie Lopez and Leslie Rubino

Jenni Marie Lopez, Leslie Rubino and Brooke Van Grinsven

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