It would be easy to make the argument that Kelleen Conway Blanchard's new play, "Blood Countess" is a natural selection for October, with its Halloween balance of the horrific and the bizarre, its combination of cartoonish terror and god-awful blood lust. Blanchard, however, never lets a first impression become the content of her plays. As in "Kittens in a Cage" and "The Underground" the initial triteness of commonplace tropes provide an easily accessible gateway to well-developed and compelling characters dealing with the absurdity of their situations with genuine emotion and real internal conflict. There are plenty of laughs throughout "Blood Countess" but we never lose sight of the fact that these uncommon people are dealing with exactly the same challenges that we deal with daily, and that caring about their struggles is at least as rewarding as the pure entertainment of the evening.
Director Bret Fetzer has a firm grasp on this delicate dramatic balance and uses a well-balanced and talented cast to achieve considerable success in this premiere production. The staging is clever and the scenic design adequate, while the costumes by Samantha Armitage are quite outstanding. That's important because it is really the human beings inside those costumes who, more than the action, more than the time or place, comprise the real content of this drama.
The 16th Century Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Terri Weagant) is an insecure woman who has been constantly degraded and diminished by her cruel mother (convincingly played by Mary Murfin Bailey). She falls in love with a dashing, narcissistic soldier named Ferenc (James Weidman) only to lose him to the field of battle. With the help of her nursemaid, Dorkus, (Ashlen Hodge) Elizabeth discovers a fascination with the way in which life leaves all creatures, beginning with a tiny bird in her hand and developing into the murders of several young girls left in her care. The rationale behind that is that Elizabeth believes she needs to bathe in the young girl's blood in order to sustain her youth and beauty, and that is very, very important to this self-degrading woman. Through the influence of a truly frightening, physically scarred and emotionally terrible woman named Fitzco, she descends farther and farther into her emotional morass. The influence of corrupt and immoral Church leaders does nothing to impede her plunge into the caverns of darkness. The ending is both fantastic and entirely believable. We have traveled to many worlds with this woman and the journey is quite unforgettable.
As Elizabeth, Teri Weagant was impressive and convincing, giving us both a plain woman filled with self-doubt and a privileged noble with the power to destroy herself and the world around her. It is immediately obvious that the problems this woman sees in her appearance are about the face that she sees in the mirror, not the face she presents to the world. When she loses her husband, the loss and anger and desire for revenge is internalized in interesting and challenging ways, for us to recognize before she recognizes it in herself. Her corruption is much more about weakness than evil, personal inadequacy rather than exerting wicked power, and the fact that she feels no empathy for others in her world makes her pathology feel genuine and pitiable.
Mary Murfin Bayley was mean and heartless as Elizabeth's mother and her every word cut like a lash on her daughter's scarred and trembling back. James Weidman was just fine as the dauntless husband (and also an inspector dispatched to investigate the castle), and never showed a trace of the depth or substance that torments his wife and widow. Ashlen Hodge was quite effective as Dorkus the chambermaid and made it clear that while she was probably the closest person to Elizabeth most of the time, she would never share the world in which the Countess lives. Sarah Winsor was quite sympathetic as the unwilling victims. I also liked Martyn G. Krouse as the immeasurably creepy Church Father who did little but deliver the senseless perversions of faith that did nothing to help or comfort Elizabeth.
Of the supporting characters it was Erin Stewart as the wretched Fitzco who really brought an enormous amount of content to an apparently superficial role. This creature was the most apparent, most obvious monster in the show, yet Stewart managed to make her enormously complex, her suffering visceral, her descent into a living hell both sympathetic and frightening. This actor was entirely buried in this role, as the character was entirely buried in her own life. Beneath the hideous exterior, this was the character who had the most depth of humanity, corrupted as it may have been.
I have enormous respect for Kelleen Conway Blanchard as a playwright. You always get more out of the experience of her plays than you ever expected going in, given superficial premises and a self-deprecating sobriety toward the work. I came out of the theater with a deep appreciation and admiration for what she achieved with "Blood Countess" and that appreciation has only grown in the hours since leaving the theater. Go see this show, but don't expect a spook show or an evening with the Munsters. This is real drama. And it works.