Victoria Fringe Festival 2017 – Blood Countess
Review by Caitlin Baird – Showbill.ca Staff Writer
August 31, 2017
Four hundred years ago in Hungary, Countess Erzsébet Báthory was accused of killing over six hundred young women in the most terrible ways. Her family name kept her from execution; she spent her final years locked away in a small part of one of her castles. Today she is considered history’s most prolific female serial killer.
Blood Countess, written and performed by Sharon Nowlan of Regina’s Praire Fire, explores the possibility of Báthory’s innocence and how her gender interacts with the vicious vampiric legends. Was she simply too rich, too influential for a widow? Did the crown plot against her to avoid paying its large debts?
The show begins with a short canned introduction to the historical countess. Quickly it turns to a haunting, whispering chorus in both English and Hungarian as Nowlan glides ghostly across the stage. In her wide hoopskirt she appears to float, the glow of her candles reflected in her vanity mirror, the only set-piece. It’s eerie and excellent.
All the theatrical elements – clever lighting, a rich if incessant soundscape, costuming, dramatic visuals – are strong. Nowlan excels in the movement sections, often with a swirling whip, though these tend to run long. But the story, despite the colourful legends upon which it is based, falls flat.
The collage of scenes rely heavily on the opening expository sound-byte. Front-loaded biography gives way to curiously contemporary conversations about gender. A simple rearrangement of the already non-linear timeline is all that’s needed, but currently we have to get through the Wikipedia article before the show can begin.
Nowlan’s Báthory veers between period noblewoman and modern mouthpiece. She’s right, of course, when she talks of the struggles of being a woman in this viscerally masculine era, and in our own. But how would Erzsébet have expressed her indignation? Her experiences would feel more real and memorable shown in scene, with specificity, rather than almost anachronistically.
Other anachronisms exist. Maybe if the two Báthorys, the authorial and the historical, existed with greater separation these anachronisms could work. A repeated (and charming) element sees a spotlit Nowlan advertising Báthory Blood Wine. As it stands these comedic interludes feel disconnected from the larger whole. More could be teased out of this show and its sensational subject matter.
A scene comes to mind which exemplifies Blood Countess‘s potential: Báthory relives the childhood memory of seeing a thief punished by being sewn, still alive, into the gutted belly of a dead horse. It is violent but wondrous, peculiar and spooky, deeply troubling yet so ludicrous as to be funny. We glimpse the everyday brutality of sixteenth century Europe as well as young Erzsébet’s character. Nowlan shines in the raw physicality of her storytelling.
Blood Countess lives and dies by its design elements, and its long movement-based interludes. Unfortunately, under the dressing, the script lacks substance.
Created by Sharon Nowlan
Victoria Fringe Festival
Venue 5 (Langham Court Theatre)
- Aug 31 @ 5:00pm
- Sept 1 @ 9:15pm
- Sept 2 @ 7:30pm