Theatre review: this Blood Relations is not quite as sharp as Lizzie’s axe

Though acquitted for the act, in Blood Relations, playwright Sharon Pollock leaves little doubt that Lizzie Borden did indeed take her forty whacks.  And while Pollock forgoes the question of who for an exploration of why, by the time the grisly murders occur in the current Theatre at UBC production, it is near impossible to care.

Beginning the story ten years after the fateful 1892 day in the Borden household, Lizzie is entertaining an actress who she obviously shares an intimate relationship (while Pollock does not name the actress, it is no doubt a nod to her rumoured lesbian affair with actress Nance O’Neill).  As the conversation inevitably turns to the question of Lizzie’s innocence or guilt, the two begin to re-enact the series of events that led to the murders.

In an interesting twist, Pollock switches up the roles in the re-enactments with the Actress taking on the part of Lizzie and Lizzie that of Bridget, the Borden’s Irish housemaid.  This switch results in two very distinct performances of the play’s central protagonist with Courtney Shields as Lizzie/Bridget the more successful of the two, giving the necessary hardened outer shell to her portrayal of the enigmatic Lizzie and a believability to the long-suffering maid.

Mercedes de la Zerda and Courtney Shields in the Theatre at UBC production of Blood Relations.  Photo by Nancii Bernard.
Mercedes de la Zerda and Courtney Shields in the Theatre at UBC production of Blood Relations.  Photo by Nancii Bernard.

Naomi Vogt and Kenton Klassen are placed in the impossible position of portraying the older parents, while Georgia Beaty brings a delicate turn to the other Borden sister and Matt Reznek once again proves his skills in the role of an Irish doctor.

Under Jennette White’s direction there is a languid pace to the production that counteracts any tension, and while we may know the outcome going in, we need that tension to hold our interest.  Her decision to place so much of the action so far upstage blocks another access point to the characters and story.

Diana Sepulveda Navarrette encases the Borden home inside a large bird cage designed to both mimic Lizzie’s breaking point over the slaughter of her beloved birds and as a metaphor for being trapped under the expectations of her family.  Clayton Brown’s projections high above the central set piece are inconsistent and rather than enhance, are a distraction.

In an interesting post-show debate, the discussion revolved around whether the actors were being too “precious” or too “modern” for this period piece.  In the precious theory they give a gravitas to the play only because they believe it necessary for the time period, while in the modern theory they are unable to fully transport themselves into the time period.  Whichever theory you support, the outcome is always a less than believable performance.

Sometimes the success or failure of a production can also boil down to play choice.  While Theatre at UBC tends towards a more traditional canon, I’m looking forward to a day when it takes some real risks and stages a season more attuned to its young students.

2 1/2 of 5 StarsBlood Relations

By Sharon Pollock.  Directed by Jennette White.  A Theatre at UBC Production.  On stage at the Frederic Wood Theatre at the University of British Columbia through April 6, 2013.  Visit http://www.theatre.ubc.ca for tickets and information.

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