Chilling but warmblooded, brooding but playful, “Lizzie: The Musical” kicks off with a rendition of the famous jump-rope rhyme. In Pinky Swear Productions’ rollicking staging at the Anacostia Playhouse, the show’s four female characters chant the verse in deliberately bratty tones: “Lizzie Borden took an ax / Gave her mother 40 whacks / When she saw what she had done / Gave her father 41.”
There is nothing childish about “Lizzie,” which uses pulsing rock numbers and yearning power ballads to recall the notorious 1892 double murder in Massachusetts for which Lizzie Borden was arrested — and acquitted. Rather, the singsong rhyme, early on, gives the show an added note of subversiveness. After that fleeting image of mischievous kids chanting words calculated to spook adults, Lizzie seems all the more like a rebel straining against an oppressive 19th-century world.
That tinge of feminist politics adds to the power of “Lizzie,” which was created by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner, and directed here by Marie Byrd Sproul. Lizzie (an intense Alani Kravitz) has been abused by her father and stifled by society, and she’s not the only character who hurts. As the show barrels along — almost entirely in song, with the accompaniment of a five-piece band at the center of the stark stage — we meet three members of Lizzie’s circle. Her sister, Emma (Rebecca Speas), hates their stepmother. The household maid, Bridget (Karen Lange, flashing devilish smiles), resents the family for forgetting her name. And a frequent visitor, Alice (Allyson Harkey), is obviously in love with Lizzie. Dressed in expressionistic goth-Victorian attire (designed by Liz Gossens), the actors radiate their characters’ simmering frustration and flash glimmers of menace.
While some scenes show Lizzie reading a book on poisons and recoiling from the sight of decapitated pigeons, the action is principally staged concert style rather than representationally. (Choreographer Rachel Hynes presumably added the apt strutting-rock-star movement.) The staged-concert conceit underscores the idea of a claustrophobic environment, perhaps best expressed in the song “Gotta Get Out of Here.” But the production also includes playful touches, such as the squirt bottles of fake blood that get antic use during the murders.
A few blocks away from “Lizzie,” another production also is spinning a tale of a defiant daughter. Tracey Erbacher embraced a promising idea when she opted to stage “[gay] Cymbeline” for Theatre Prometheus, a company whose mission, like Pinky Swear’s, includes an emphasis on women’s voices and stories. Now running at the Anacostia Arts Center, “[gay] Cymbeline” turns several of the male characters in Shakespeare’s late romance into women, most significantly making the play’s central love story a relationship between lesbians.
The British princess Imogen (Caitlin Partridge) offends her father, King Cymbeline (a poised Christopher Holbert), by marrying the fortuneless gentlewoman Posthumus Leonatus (Briana Manente). After baroque happenings that include a poisoning plot by the villainous Queen (an enjoyably genteel Renae Erichsen-Teal), abducted royals, murderous jealousy and a Roman invasion, most of the characters are reconciled — a development that is particularly moving because of the implication that Cymbeline is overcoming homophobia when he welcomes Imogen and Posthumus back to the court.
In addition to its effective gender switching, the production includes some fun fourth-wall-shattering touches, such as when the oafish Cloten (Zach Boylan) grunts, “Oh, yeah!” in satisfied tones when the stage lighting turns glitzy as he prepares to sing.
Unfortunately, though, the movement and stage business in “[gay] Cymbeline” is fidgety, and much of the acting is unpolished or overwrought. In particular, Manente’s Posthumus can be melodramatic, and Partridge grafts so many artificial attitudes and mannerisms onto her performance that it’s impossible to see Imogen as a real person. All in all, the show’s bold concept deserved better execution.