Lizzie Borden, the celebrated and assumed ax murderer, has been the subject of TV, film and theater for decades.
This weekend, Lucid Stage and Cauldron & Labrys Productions present two new one-act plays that explore the identity of someone Portland playwright Carolyn Gage calls “one of the most misunderstood women of New England history.”
Curiously, in neither play does the Borden character actually appear.
“Axed!” includes two shows: “Lace Curtain Irish,” featuring actor Denise Poirier in the role of the Irish maid who was present on the mornings of the murders, and “The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived,” which examines Borden’s life through the eyes of her lesbian lover, the actress Nance O’Neil. Karen Ball and Josieda Lord star in this two-woman show.
Gage wrote both plays and directs “The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived.” Ariel Francoeur directs “Lace Curtain Irish.”
They will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Lucid Stage in Portland. Gage and cast members will engage the audience in talk-back sessions after the plays.
Borden (1860-1927) was accused of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet at their home in Fall River, Mass., in 1892. The case drew international attention and turned Borden into an infamous figure. She was acquitted, but was presumed guilty by the public for the rest of her life — and thereafter.
Various theories have been floated over the years, including a popular one that presumes the maid, Bridget Sullivan, committed the murders. That’s a line of thinking to which Gage subscribes. “The maid clearly did it,” she said.
A lesbian playwright and historian with a national reputation, Gage has been interested in Borden for many years. Because so much of Borden’s life was veiled in mystery and open to speculation, she decided to tell these stories through the voices of those around her.
In “Lace Curtain Irish,” Poirier plays the role of Sullivan. Poirier debuted this piece in an Off-Off Broadway Festival in New York City, and will give it its Portland premiere at “Axed!”
“The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived” also got its premiere in New York at the Fresh Fruit LGBT Festival. It offers Ball, in the role of O’Neil, the opportunity to step away from the classical work of Shakespeare for which she is best known locally. In this show, she spars with a tabloid reporter played by Lord.
Collectively, both plays give Poirier and Ball the chance to flex in roles that are well-suited for their talents, said Gage.
“I think this is really interesting work for two women who are no longer playing ingenue roles,” she said. “Denise and Karen deserve powerful work for women. They are in their prime as actresses, and this work is perfect for them.”
Filmmakers as famous as Alfred Hitchcock have explored the Borden case, and many plays have been written about her over the years.
Gage is happy to join the ranks.
“It’s exciting to look at this subject and the historical facts of Fall River and the wild interpretations that we have seen over the years,” she said. “These are two very different plays about a related subject. One is gripping and intense, and the other is fun and romantic.
“It should be a great evening of theater.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: