Countess Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory is known, during her heyday in the late 1500s, for killing young women and bathing in their blood. From her corner of the turbulent Hungarian kingdom, she wielded financial and political power and was apparently a ruthless devil. Fortunately, like new theories of the crimes of the Biblical Jezebel, Don Fried and Second Skin Productions are here to paint a different picture of the maligned noblewoman. Was Báthory bad, or did the men make some of that up?
In 1576, Erzsébet (Jessie Komitor) is a playful, orphaned teenager with aspirations. She has fun with her governess, Katalin (Rachel Esther Tate), she can already read better than her deceased mother, who was married off at 14, and she so hopes to marry her cousin Andras (Mark Binet) and run her estate that she studies classical languages, law, and finance. However, now that the Austrian Hapsburgs are allied with Hungary to fight the Turks, King Matthias II (John D’Arcangelo) has other plans for her. A marriage to the boorish warrior Ferenc Nádasdy (Andrew Rothkin) ends in his accidental death. From here on, the Countess’s brains trump the united brawn of Christendom. When Andras wants anything from her, whether it is a love affair or a secret loan on behalf of the King’s war effort, she demands a notarized document from the Bank of England. Perhaps the sad state of Christian resistance to the Turks (who took Transylvania and would not be finally driven away from Vienna for another hundred years) made these men resent the Countess. Or perhaps she really kept serving girls in her basement, gradually bleeding them to death so she could take beauty baths. In this piece, the men’s envy is quite clear but so is Erzsébet’s justification for punishing them. With the help of her accomplice Szilva (Heather Lee Harper), she even whips her former friend Katalin for spying on her. Finally, the King wants to take down Erzsébet but sees that it is not really a crime to kill peasants, only nobles. Further legal circus acts are needed, which only make the Countess angrier.
Andy McQuade’s charming production is reminiscent of a film. Several times, Erzsébet stands in front of her mirror and speaks to an older, scarier version of herself (Heather Lee Harper). Often, the younger Countess stands or sits with light only on her face, other characters around her bent to her will, whispering her innermost thoughts. Sarah Cogan’s eerie lighting and gorgeous, furry, period costumes as well as Colin McGurk’s set (a cool throne, among other things) create this fragile world within the black box of the Richmond Shepard Theater. One might also add that Arbrenne Kelly's blood work is crucial to the show. The cast together offer a troubling look at royal power, where older, muscular men are helpless before an eternally youthful Countess.