Mention Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory in a conversation and you’ll likely hear two typical responses: a breathless “ooh” from those caught in the cult of the infamous late-16th-century serial killer and a “huh?” from the uninitiated.
Count into the camp of the enthralled John DiDonna, the writer and director of Bathory, the Blood Countess. From the age of 8, “I was just obsessed with her,” he says of the intelligent (she spoke three languages) and powerful woman of destruction. He pored over whatever he could find on the subject of her life and crimes, from childhood to imprisonment. Now in his 40s, the respected veteran of local theater has brought to fruition his ripe dramatization of the legendary murderess who was complex, to say the least. That she danced with the devil is too alluring a phrase to describe what history has stacked up against her – the bodies of more than 600 young women, sadistically tortured to obtain their blood, which was consecrated by Bathory as her personal fountain of youth.
Through Nov. 3, 2007
Empty Spaces Theatre Co.
at Lowndes Shakespeare Center
$20, (407) 328-9005
DiDonna’s lifelong ruminations have led to an inspired development of the Countess of Blood in his script and apt casting for the character. Elizabeth is portrayed by a trio of actresses, all three performing on stage at once. Samantha O’Hare plays young Elizabeth, the spoiled
ruling-class daughter: “I loved the prissy girl,” DiDonna says of the innocent corrupted at an early age. Nikki Darden captures the in-her-prime countess who arrogantly acted on her impulses: “I’m frightened of the middle one,” he says of the beautiful monster fueled with rage. Peg O’Keef represents the worn-down, wealthy dowager who has no regrets: “I have great empathy for the elder,” he says of the crone imprisoned behind the walls of her own castle.
The progression of the countess from virgin royalty to deviant insanity is the thrust of DiDonna’s story, and he holds Elizabeth’s humanity at the forefront, even as she deteriorates into criminal madness. Each of the actresses reflects the workings of the inner mind of Elizabeth as she thrives on the sickness that leads her unfailingly to cry, “I am innocent.” Arguably, the countess was a product of the unpredictable synthesis of nature and nurture; her character traits lie within us all, in different measure, and that’s the frightening realization that raises the hair on your arms.
The show has a clunky beginning – characters step on stage in the cover of darkness for a hurried exchange and a quick exit, followed by a second entrance that truly opens the story. The scene is outside the Countess Bathory’s door, which is bricked in, like the rest of the castle, save for a space through which food can be delivered. One of the guards looks in to see the staring dead eyes that mark the end of the feared and revered countess. From there, the script cleverly weaves the past into a storytelling session that allows the three Elizabeths to partake when it is their time to shine as well as to remain in character, quietly responsive, when they are not. Once you understand the functional presence of the trio, you’re caught under the spell that holds you through the sensational finale.
The character of Lord Palantine Gyorgy Thurzo, performed with excellence by DiDonna himself, lovingly watches the development and decline of the woman he cares for but learns to fear.
We meet the petulant young Elizabeth, her pale skin and flaming hair igniting her legendary beauty. She has been sent to live with the mother of her future husband, a soldier, and is rebellious of her forced situation. She has the money and the name that’s needed, after all. O’Hare, in her first major theatrical role, must be commended for capturing the girl’s repressed conflicts turned affliction. The countess’ fiery nature comes through, and bouts of seizures foreshadow her mental instability. We also are clued into the barbarous times of 16th-century Hungary, where there was no equality of human life. Strange and sexual feelings burst out of Elizabeth, satisfying her lust for a life she can’t live out in her role as wife and mother.
Entitled to all that she craves and spinning out of control, Darden’s Elizabeth appears to be the picture of gentility as the beast burns within. It is she who confuses our senses with her polarity of fierce love (of the loyal servants who do her bidding) and fierce hate (of the budding women she must kill). Standing proudly with aristocratic bearing, Peg O’Keef’s Elizabeth submits to her less potent phase of life, having been made full by a career of indulgence and carrying the smirk of unrepentance for her previous sins.
The remainder of the cast members’ performances ebb and flow with the changing behaviors of the mistress of the house. The pathetic Ficzko (Blake Logan), in particular, as Elizabeth’s adopted pet of sorts, imbues the horrific truths with his twisted sense of humor and loyalty.
Some of us have no need for high-dollar frights this time of year; reality is horrifying enough, even in a historical retelling. You never know what’s inside another person’s firstname.lastname@example.org