By Stanford Friedman
The stepmother most likely had it coming and the father deserved it for sure. That is the verdict to be drawn from Fall River Fishing, a bloody and comically surreal reimagining of the Lizzie Borden story being staged by the appropriately named Bedlam theater company. But the playwriting team of Zuzanna Szadkowski and Deborah Knox have more on their minds than just homicide by hatchet. They display a vested interest in fat-shaming, unrequited love, broken marriages and the desperate need to be needed. Witty dialog and stinging performances are the order of the day, aided by the edgy and taut direction of the company’s artistic director, Eric Tucker.
Playing fast and loose with both linear time and factual events, there are Victorian costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, and period set pieces on designer Cate McCrea blood-stained stage, but the writers, who also star in the production, toss out numerous references to contemporary touchstones, like Tinder and greek yogurt. Lizzie (Szadkowski) is now a frustrated, unemployed actress living with her abominable parents. Her father, Andrew (Tony Torn) sums up his daughter as, “Bitter. Fat. Miserable.” And her stepmother, Abby (Susannah Millonzi), is too busy trying to be an object of desire to care much about anything else. When she does eventually turn her attention to Lizzie, offering harsh advice in decidedly less than endearing terms, a bloody mess is not far off. Torn is no stranger to strange roles and plays his villainy here with a delightful streak of weirdness. Millonzi, in a physically demanding turn, is as hot as she is ice cold.
Lizzie’s partner in crime, literally and figuratively, is the household maid, Bridget (Knox). Bridget is deeply in love with Lizzie, but Lizzie is less than reciprocal, stringing her along as a much needed confidant and scene partner for the brief skits she stages to pass the time. Also in attendance is young Uncle Nathan (Jamie Smithson), the weaselly brother of Andrew’s first wife. A glutton for punishment, he’s a punching bag for Andrew and a plaything for Abby. He harbors a lustful, indeed loving attraction toward Lizzie, even if he can’t quite express his feelings normally. “You are really beautiful and sexy and have a sort of strong, like, sexy thing,” is his opening bid in wooing her. Smithson offers a masterful performance, alternating between hapless and creepy, yet somehow coming across as unexplainably likable.
Act One, which brings Lizzie’s tale to its inevitable conclusion, runs a well-paced 90 minutes and is a satisfying meal in itself. The 40-minute second act is a tart dessert served with an extra-large dollop of absurdism. How crazy do things get? Suffice it to say that at one point, four characters, including a bloodied and pregnant Sharon Tate, and Torvald Helmer, from A Doll’s House, eat spaghetti with their bare hands off of a table while shouting “Fuck a snake!” over and over. The act serves as a kind of contemporary fever dream of what came before, with the actors assuming new characters with relationship problems of their own. They sometimes spout bits of triggering dialog that echo back to Lizzie’s story. There are people and themes from A Doll’s House, but this scene is set in modern day Norway, and unlike Ibsen’s unhappy couple, this Nora (Szadkowski) and Torvald (Smithson) are childless. “We don’t have any,” barks Nora, who then adds, in a joke that slices in many directions, “Not in this version, I cut them.”
Fall River Fishing – By Zuzanna Szadkowski & Deborah Knox, directed by Eric Tucker
WITH: Zuzanna Szadkowski (Lizzie), Deborah Knox (Bridget), Susannah Millonzi (Abby), Tony Torn (Andrew), and Jamie Smithson (Natahn).
Lighting Design by Les Dickert, Set Design by Cate McCrea, Properties Design by Buffy Cardoza, and Costume Design by Charlotte Palmer-Lane. Bedlam at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th St., https://bedlam.org/fall-river-fishing-2/. Through March 9. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes