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It's a strange bit of American history that Theatre Unbound serves up in Anne Bertram's new play, "Murderess." In six monologues, six women from the 19th and early 20th centuries artfully explain or justify - or deny - their nefarious deeds. A seventh woman, a Presenter trying to gain some understanding from these women, introduces each of them.
Aside from the notorious Lizzie Borden (a cultured and sophisticated young woman in this telling), few of the women will have much name recognition. One murdered a stalker, another her abusive farmer husband after neighbors refused to help her. A slave murdered her father/master; a widow, 13 bachelors; and a nurse, an innumerable number of her patients.
Bertram manages to get to the heart of these diverse women and gives them each a unique voice. Some of the tellings inspire rage at the woman's mistreatment. Some are emotionally compelling, some terrifying, some darkly comedic.
She also finds clever ways to have the women tell her stories. One is rehearsing a lecture about her experiences in front of Susan B. Anthony. Another is talking to her children. Another is addressing the crowd there to witness her hanging.
The use of the Presenter is a brilliant convention, because her reading of newspapers and other contemporary accounts attests to the veracity of the stories. It also means that Bertram doesn't have to worry about exposition or outcome. She can just drop us right into the emotional heart of these perfect miniatures.
The production is worthy of Bertram's script. The simple staging allows the focus to remain on her strong language. Six directors, under the supervision of Miriam Monasch, bring the women powerfully to life.
Among the highlights are Leah Adcock-Starr directing Muriel J. Bonertz as the deeply affecting farm wife, Carolyn Levy directing Ellen Apel in a grand rendition of the widow, and Mishia Burns Edwards directing Laura Wiebers in a chilling portrait of a sociopath nurse. Wendy Resch Novak directs Chenea Love Green in a lacerating performance as the slave. As the Presenter, Emma Gochberg delivers a delicious twist at the end of the evening.
Ursula K. Bowden's set is necessarily simple and flexible, but provides an effective backdrop for Lisa Conley's often sumptuous costumes, capturing several periods of Americana.