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Blood Relations aims to investigate the fact and fiction of Lizzie Borden and her family

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The story of Lizzie Borden is both history and mystery, a tragic and violent narrative embedded in the fabric of American culture. An upcoming production of Blood Relations at Carpenter Square Theatre, 800 W. Main St., dramatizes the ambiguity of Borden’s story and interrogates possible motivations.

Written by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock, Blood Relations takes place in 1902, ten years after the murder of Andrew and Abigail Borden, Lizzie’s father and stepmother.

“It’s a very interesting play,” said director Tom Cowley. “It deals with Lizzie Borden — whether she really did do the deed or didn’t do it.”

The narrative focuses on a short period in Borden’s life about nine years after she was acquitted for the murders of Abby and Andrew. Blood Relations jumps temporally between past and present, imbuing the show with a dreamlike quality. Rhonda Clark, artistic director at Carpenter Square, likened the show to a memory play.

Cowley said the play uses lighting as a conduit between scenes, with a small portion of the stage being lit at any given time. Instead of scene cutoffs, the light moves onto another area of the stage, allowing for a fluid transition between places and times. Lizzie remains onstage for most of the play.

“Sometimes she’s just standing over in the dark, watching what is going on,” Cowley said.

In addition to its sense of temporal dislocation, Blood Relations also fractures the idea of Lizzie Borden as both historical personage and character, playing on themes of doubling and feminine community.

Lizzie and another character — known as The Actress — engage in performative role-playing. The Actress acts as Lizzie, while Lizzie pretends to be Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid who discovered the bodies at the Borden house on August 4, 1892.

According to Clark, The Actress engages in such role-playing in order to get information from Lizzie, trying to discern what happened on that August day.

“It gives her a really close woman friend who may or may not also be her lover,” Clark said of the play’s narrative.

For Cowley, the doubling also represented a challenge to ensure that the audience can always track with who is who at any given time. He said he thinks of the directing process as a collaboration between writer, director and actors, giving the latter group a great deal of latitude in constructing their characters.

“The cast is really good. They’re easy to work with,” Cowley said.

The doubling of Lizzie Borden’s onstage identity is a fact underscored by her larger cultural reputation.

“When the audience leaves, they can make up their own minds — which is kind of [like] the case,” Cowley said. “She was acquitted. She was convicted in public opinion, but she was never convicted legally.”

Hidden tableau

One of other ways that Blood Relations achieves its goal of asking questions about historical happenstance is by omitting the crucial moment when Lizzie allegedly killed her father, according to Cowley.

“We don’t show that. There’s no gore. They talk about it a lot, but you don’t actually see it,” Cowley said.

By not showing the scene, Blood Relations offers up possible motivations — financial, familial and cultural — that might have contributed to Lizzie’s alleged actions. The Bordens were upper-middle class, Clark said, but well-off Mr. Borden created financial conflict through his remarriage to Abby.

Familial conflict in the play also shows how Lizzie might have felt discounted by her family and wondered about what would become of her in the world, Clark said.

Clark said that the play presents Lizzie as outspoken, not willing to get along for the sake of getting along, often talking back to her father or engaging in shouting matches. Other complicating factors in the play’s treatment of Lizzie include an unrequited love interest from a doctor who has long been interested in her.

Given the show’s complicated structure and heavy subject matter, Cowley and Clark said that the staging and costuming remain straightforward.

“The set and costumes are going to be relatively realistic for the time period,” Clark said.

Set in the parlor and dining room of an old New England mansion, Clark said that various Victorian furniture and wallpaper lend the production a “period flair.” Costuming creates a similar effect — the women wear long dresses and high collars, while men wear cravats and other historical pieces.

Packed into about 90 minutes, Blood Relations doesn’t draw out Borden’s story, but rather approaches it from a period of historical distance and reappraisal.

“I know a lot of people probably don’t know a lot about Lizzie Borden,” Cowley said. “It will cause them to think a little bit.”

Blood Relations runs March 30-April 21. Tickets are $5-$25. Call 405-232-6500 or visit carpentersquare.com.

Print headline: Being Borden; Blood Relations aims to investigate the fact and fiction of Lizzie Borden and her family.

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