Sofya Weitz’s bloody new play probes the psychology of the female serial killer.
Photos by Kimie Nishikawa
Blood trickling down arms and from mouths, a cult of personality where youth and womanhood are worshipped, an entire theater covered with cling wrap...this is the world of Sofya Weitz's Lady. Loosely based on the final days of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who allegedly killed over 600 young girls making her the worst serial killer in recorded history, this play explores the collision of hedonism and Christianity, and of family and morality.
A wealthy aristocrat known only as "Lady" lives a peaceful, secluded country life, kidnapping young girls and torturing them for sport before "saving" them from a life of drudgery and childbirth while perfecting the recipes that will keep her looking young forever. But now, her household has dwindled down to just two servants, and the local village that is their usual hunting ground is growing suspicious. When a new minister comes to town preaching salvation—and determined to bring Lady to justice—servants Pal and Vlad must figure out where their loyalties and love lie before they become the next targets of the village, their master or both.
Despite its title, Lady is far more about the psychology of the two young servants than about the Lady herself. Raised from childhood in Lady's care, Vlad and Pal have come to treat their master's whims and obsession with youth as its own religion, the procuring and burying of young girls simply a matter of course. But as a more adult relationship blossoms between them, the questions begin, and a life without Lady may finally feel possible.
Lady's best moments come from its deliberate challenge to Christianity and its true morality. When Vlad, the sole man in the household, hears the minister speak of the glory and transcendence of God, but also that "Women are more animal than men," the flawed, patriarchal Christianity of the 16th century is held up in harsh relief to a cult of systematic murder of children. After a childhood spent worshipping feminine strength and elegance, Vlad and Pal encounter traditional religion from a place of total ignorance, and must struggle to see beyond the confines of Lady's house.
Though the minister's presence creates a constant low level of suspense, Lady's aloofness and refusal to consider any threat to her routine prevent that danger from ever feeling immediate, and the man of God is dispatched with little fuss. But the true danger is not the rarely seen minister; rather, it is the possibility that newly Enlightened Vlad may choose to leave Lady and everything she stands for, as the lonely aristocrat fades into obscurity. Meanwhile, though the concept of Lady rescuing young women from the pains of a 16th century patriarchal society is fascinating, any deeper thematic considerations are lost in the avalanche of corpses.
The true temporality of the play, however, is more complicated than it may first appear; while the costumes and referenced society beyond Lady's household belong to that historical period, the characters' speech and smaller elements such as the food and the music are inescapably modern. This lack of clarity adds to the sense of unsureness as to what point the piece is trying to make. Its overt and matter-of-fact sexuality and obsession with aging and the traditional feminine form leads audiences to wonder if they are meant to sympathize with Lady or to condemn her.
While Lady's age, origins and motivations are often impossible to determine, actress Lola Kelly's performance is entrancing and powerful, a woman whose spell we want to fall under. Sasha Diamond as faithful follower Pal and Eli Gelb as recalcitrant gravedigger Vlad give more stylized performances, more difficult to relate to even as fraught conversations fail to lead to any decisive action.
Witnessing this play in a space where the set extends to engulf the entire theater allows the audience to become members of a once numerous troupe of Lady's admirers, squirming with the faint unease that her time is coming to an end and unsure if that is a good thing or not. Though the piece drags on for longer than it should, its sense of restraint when it comes to visible displays of violence and gore lead to a more subtle kind of thriller than may be expected from its subject matter.
So, could you come to love and worship a self-obsessed serial killer? The answer may surprise you more than you think.
Lady plays at the American Theatre of Actors.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.