Of all the candidates for “real life vampire” surely the front-runner must be Elizabeth Bathory. Among the highest nobility in 17th century Hungary, her name comes down to us amid horrified whispers–torture, mass murder, bathing in human blood, Satanism. How much if anything actually happened remains a matter for historians. Fans of vampires know her as an icon of nightmare.
At the ZJU Theater in North Hollywood, a play just opened about her. Simply titled “Elizabeth Bathory The Blood Countess,” it plays Saturday nights at 8:30pm until the end of April. Yours truly was invited to the premiere!
How was it? A bit mixed. The whole thing lasts fifty-five minutes, yet writers Stuart Creque and Bea Egeto crammed quite a lot of Bathory’s adult life into that less-than-hour. Her fervent marriage to a bloodthirsty warlord, her fears of growing old, the rampant cruelty leading to a legendary chance discovery about the properties of blood on aging skin. Leah Boschen twitched and rocked on stage as the audience trickled in (the house was very nearly full). Soon enough we realized here was the Countess herself, walled up in an apartment in her castle rather than face trial. As house lights faded, she spoke, noting her lack of human contact for these past three years. Her only companions–a book, a pen, and her hand mirror.
Much of what followed was a flashback, a technique not at all common in theater. Boschen herself did not play a younger Bathory committing her crimes, but rather acted as a witness across time. Her performance was perhaps most compelling as she watched, half-revelling and half-dreamlike.
The younger Countess, played by Charlotte Bjornbak (who co-directed), moved across the stage sheathed in an all-too-appropriate scarlet gown. At her best, she came across as a human animal–wild and petulant and almost growling whenever moved to any emotion. Jen Albert was Ilona, her handmaiden and co-conspirator, an evident worshiper of darkness–but curiously referred to early on as old, when the actress could not be older than her thirties. Probably younger. She wore no age make-up. Odd.
While the show proved enjoyable, it also seemed to pull its punch. Such subject matter fairly calls out for one of two different approaches. One is to make her a kind of Hannibal Lecter figure, someone horrible and terrifying yet also brimming with a kind of wisdom. Such a Countess might draw parallels between what she did and common practice at the time, even today. She might ask deeply uncomfortable questions. We might even find ourselves on her side, especially if those who brought her down stand revealed as hypocrites. Or–they could have gone all Grand Guignol, made the whole show as lurid as humanly possible. Just the lesbian rape and torture of nuns alone should be be enough! It could have been a live action piece of torture porn a la “Saw” or “Hostel.”
But they did neither.
Instead of intensity, what we got was an entertaining but not compelling peek into life of a monster. Hints of more were scattered throughout–the manipulated complicity of the local priest for example. At one point the Countess seems to almost fall in love with a pretty young singer, then go berserk when she spurned her advances. That incident in particular kept coming back to me hours after the show. It hinted at the loneliness of a woman with a nature too fierce for civilization, raging at a life that made no sense to her. Only a hint, true. But at least there was a hint. Many a horror play lacks even that!
With my background in theater, I must also applaud how certain effects were realized. Stage blood remains hideously difficult to wash off, and by night’s end Bjornbak’s face looked very well-scrubbed indeed. The hints of torture devices and multiple corpses were accomplished very well (save for a couple of cadavers breathing rather more than one would expect of the dead). Impressive how large a cast of characters they managed to create in such a small space–almost two dozen in a small black box theater.
But still–the subject matter cried out for more. The scale of events proved impressive, but it was when the show achieved intensity (as it did several times) that I was most impressed, and more entertained.
You can learn more about the actual production at www.zombiejoes.com