If you, like me, have grown tired of the usual rotation of Frankenstein and Dracula stories each Halloween, you might instead turn to the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a monstrous figure of both history and legend. That’s certainly the subject playwright Millie Rose turned to with her immersive script Bloody Bathory, currently in its world premiere production with The Barrens Theatre Co, directed by Molly H. Donahue. Rose’s script dives into the little fact and lots of myth surrounding the infamous countess and brings audience members along for the dark and thrilling ride.
Countess Elizabeth Bathory lived in Hungary in the late 16th and early 17th century. Allegedly, she was responsible for the torture and murder of up to 650 young girls; the most famous legend around her (one that sprung up nearly 200 years after her death) is that she bathed in the blood of her virgin victims to retain her youthful glow. Salacious rumors about her activities abound, each more shocking than the last, and very few provable with the limited historical documentation of her life.
Rose invites all the grim speculation surrounding Bathory into her play, but she also lets in the doubt. On one end of the spectrum, the de facto king of Hungary, Matthias, is convinced of her guilt and determined to find evidence of it, even if he has to bully, bribe, or manipulate to get it. On the other, the countess’ friend and possible lover Thurzo points to the lack of hard evidence in the hearsay testimony of villagers. And in between fall all the other characters, whose motivations are many and often inscrutable, and the audience, who is placed in the position of jury and tasked with determining the countess’ guilt.
The production is set in Epworth United Methodist Church, a beautiful stone building that serves as a convincing modern substitute for an old Hungarian castle, and which served (re)discover theatre well in their 2016 immersive adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Farewell My Friend. The main rectory is a dramatic space, with high ceilings and a choir loft behind the main altar, perfect for staging scenes in levels: here, Elizabeth Bathory sits in stony silence above the proceedings of her trial.
Smaller spaces are used for smaller scenes, all set before the time of the trial; audience members can choose where to go and what to see. Follow one character and you might witness Matthias interviewing a villager; follow another and watch Bathory’s head of staff physically punish a servant girl; in yet another scene, Bathory is tormented by the ghost of a girl who died in her care. Meanwhile, whatever scene you choose, you may hear snatches of dialogue, slamming of doors, or screaming in the distance and never know what’s happening elsewhere in the castle. And so, as in life, our knowledge is imperfect; we cannot witness everything and must draw conclusions based only on what we see and how we choose to interpret it.
I’ll admit I didn’t find the show as scary as I’d hoped, although I also missed out on many of the scenes that involved the dead, and I never made it to the cellar (a new servant girl is forbidden to go down there, so obviously it holds something interesting and probably horrifying). And I’ll admit that I find Millie Rose’s writing more compelling than her performance as Countess Bathory, which paled in comparison to other performances like Maggie Miller as the exasperated judge Kovac, Stephanie Mattos as the hot-headed Matthias, and Kayla Cole as the troubled Mira.
Although it seems easy to overlook the show’s design elements in light of its dramatic church setting, carefully placed lighting by Owen Nichols and haunting music and sounds designed by Matt Reich are essential to creating the eerie and unsettling atmosphere of Čachtice Castle. And beautiful costumes by Amanda Vander Byl do much of the heavy lifting of establishing time and place, as well as the class levels of the characters.
If you’re looking for thrills and chills this Halloween season, or for a theatre experience outside the norm, Bloody Bathory is the perfect choice to lose yourself in a mysterious and haunting world outside our own.
Location: Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave., Chicago
Dates: October 1 – November 16, 2019
Times: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Tickets: $27. Tickets on sale now online at this link.
Additional show information at the Barrens Theatre Company website.
All photos by Les Rorick.