It’s a gruesomely fascinating tale. Husband and wife Andrew and Abby Borden are found dead in their home in Massachusetts after being mercilessly beaten to death with a hatchet. Abby took nine blows to the head, while Andrew’s face becomes a ‘mess of raw meat’.
Their daughter Lizzie Borden is arrested on suspicion of their murder, but after the trial she walks free, and no one else is ever arrested for the crime.
Of course, all this happened 126 years ago, and Lizzie herself died way back in 1927, making any investigation into the case today pretty irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean doing so isn’t good fun, especially when paired with a rip roaring bluegrass soundtrack and some morbidly funny quips.
Out of the Forest Theatre defines itself on unconventional narrative structures and innovative storytelling, and they couldn’t have fulfilled this goal any better with Bury the Hatchet. The three actors on stage fluctuate between discussing the story amongst themselves podcast-style, and acting it out in all its sensational drama, throwing in some classic folk songs for good measure.
At times it is difficult to keep your bearings, and it is by no means a relaxing viewing experience, but there’s never a dull moment. The play is the brainchild of Sasha Wilson, who leads the storytelling while also dipping in and out of the character of Lizzie herself. Her deep personal interest in the story is clear, as she picks apart original source material and talks of her experience visiting the house where the murders actually took place (now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum).
She’s accompanied by Joseph Prowen and David Leopold, who take on roles including Lizzie’s father and the police detectives investigating the case, while also bringing a dose of slapstick humour to proceedings – referring to the hatchet as an axe (much to Sasha’s chagrin) or pretending to report on the murder as a modern day TV presenter with microphone.
In the sweltering heat of The Hope Theatre on one of the hottest days of the year, the trio brought endless enthusiasm, jumping rapidly from one position to the next throughout the quick scene changes and song renditions.
The musical element was a nice touch, although could have been incorporated more seamlessly at times. It was sometimes jarring to be hooked on a fascinating aspect of the story only to be abruptly cut off for a sing-along of London Town.
But the songs are a clever way of connecting the story to its folklore memorialisation – it became the skipping rope rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother 40 whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father 41.”
Overall, Bury the Hatchet does an excellent job of injecting some fresh insight and humour into the grisly Borden tale, without turning it into a gimmick.
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