On the invitation of playwright, performer, and erstwhile genius Jared McDaris, the Fella and I found ourselves attending a Friday night performance of the new Elizabethan tragedy, “Countess Bathory.” Written in iambic pentameter, styled after Shakespeare’s finest twisted looking-glass stage stories of human ambition, revulsion, and misfortune, “Bathory” is staged in the very intimate space of the Right Brain Project (4001 N. Ravenswood, off the Irving Park Brown Line stop). With only a few set cutouts to represent the stone parapets and walls of various castles, and a red-stained bathtub in the corner, this is clearly a production about the characters, not about their location or even their time period.
Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess who lived from 1560 to 1614, most famous for her alleged track record of torture, kidnapping, and homicide. According to a number of contemporary accounts and witnesses, Báthory tortured and killed over six hundred young women between the years of 1590 and 1610. She was arrested, tried, and – perhaps most surprisingly – merely condemned to house arrest for the rest of her life. Her legend has slithered through folk histories and fiction for centuries since then, especially the horrific legend of her bathing in the blood of young virgins to keep herself young and beautiful.
PERFECT for a Shakespearean-styled tragedy!
McDaris and a hearty, intrepid crew of actors and designers have created a dizzying fictionalized glimpse into the real history of Báthory and the horrible atrocities she may have committed behind the mask of her nobility and prestige. Costumes by Delena Bradley are exquisite and textured – from the vampirically gorgeous gowns of Báthory herself to the rags her victims wear, Bradley’s details and theme create a clearer vision of the story for an audience who may not be intimately familiar with 16th-century Hungary. The audience collectively gave an audible gasp and murmur of appreciation when the Countess (Mary-Kate Arnold) made her grand entrance for Act II in a stunning red dress that would be right at home on a New York Fashion Week runway.
McDaris’ script is not only exquisitely paced and structured, but it is incredibly intelligent as well. I had moments where I distinctly noted sly nods to lines from various plays in Shakespeare’s own canon, but all was done in tribute, not in parody. It is pleasantly comfortable to follow and listen to if you have an ear for Shakespeare, and McDaris provides impressive speech for his actors – although there is a scene centered on an archaic term for genitalia that may be lost on modern audiences, it is ripe with the Elizabethan style and spirit.
Arnold is an exquisite ball of elemental energy as the bizarre and deeply disturbed Báthory. She is fire, then ice, then something in between, all without even the slightest hint of struggle for her as a performer – Arnold clearly has skill at playing this spectrum of madness. She is equally lovely as she is insane, however, and wears the deranged Báthory’s wildness like a little girl wears her finest fairy-tale princess dress.
Elliott Sowards plays Báthory’s husband Nadasdy with a carefully controlled fire which sometimes rages out of control – Sarah Jean Tilford is scene-stealing as the ratlike, always-in-motion Petr Zadovsky – Aiyanna Wade is pleasant enough in her first scene as demure servant Kate, but provides an astonishing amount of gravitas and stillness throughout the rest of the play, a shudder-worthy character arc that brought to mind the Reek storyline in Game of Thrones. Even throughout Báthory’s wildest outbursts, Wade’s sad, hollowed-out gaze is impressively haunting.
The rest of the cast is wonderful to watch as well, and the space is suitably close quarters for a magnifying glass to be held up to this strange history. Although McDaris takes some liberties with the actual history, it hardly matters – the story is riveting and the words are well-crafted.
On top of these impressive performances and accomplishments, “Countess Bathory” is free to the public (ages 18+ of course). McDaris and his cast and crew are more than deserving of pay for their art – so they have a tip jar which you can contribute to after the show. “Countess Bathory” runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM until June 25 at the Right Brain Project (4001 N Ravenswood, 4th floor).
Do yourself a favor and see this before it closes – it’s quite honestly a phenomenal evening of theatre.