By Sofya Weitz; Directed by Will Arbery
Produced by the Araca Project
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 11.1.15
American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street
by Zachary Conner on 10.31.15
Eli Gelb and Lola Kelly in Lady. Photo by Kimie Nishikawa.
BOTTOM LINE: A bloody fun, yet somewhat shallow, depiction of one of history’s most diabolical serial killers.
Power. Manipulation. Sexual domination. These are just three of the many dark themes present in Sofya Weitz’s new play Lady. Loosely portraying the final days in one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Weitz entertains audiences with a tale of the macabre.
In the production’s opening moments, we are introduced to Vlad (Eli Gelb) and Pal (Sasha Diamond), servants to whom the village minister refers to as the “evil lady on the hill.” It quickly becomes clear that Vlad and Pal live to serve their mistress, a woman known simply as Lady (Lola Kelly). Luring young girls from the safety of their homes and into Lady’s castle to be butchered, Vlad and Pal hopelessly live an endless cycle of providing for their false God. Gelb plays an immediately likable Vlad—despite his savage, animalistic ways and somewhat misguided view of the world. Due in part to playing a character who ultimately attempts to save the day, and part a reflection of ease in his craft as a performer, Gelb shines during much of the performance. The character of Vlad is a prime example of a tragic hero, and Gelb does a fine job of demonstrating him as such.
As the play continues and we are made to witness Lady’s madness in butchering her young captives, we learn that she believes their blood will keep her young forever. This belief physically comes to existence in a scene in which Vlad pours the blood of a recent victim over Lady’s naked body. Heightened situations like the one just mentioned require an incredible belief in given circumstances, and as leading lady, Lola Kelly accepts the challenge with great success. Kelly presents us with many sides to the same coin—at one moment the shining example of regalia, at another a woman teetering on the edge of insanity. Kelly is no exception to the notion of good-things-coming-in-small-packages, commanding not only the characters around her, but our invested attention as audience members.
As the performance plays out further, Lady’s secret is threatened when the neighboring town becomes suspicious—sending a man of faith to question the household. The minister (Jack Plowe) is an awkward addition to an otherwise tight ensemble. He is an outsider in just about every way, from the way in which he dresses in all white (a stark contrast to the muted and crimson colors of Vlad, Pal, and Lady), to the over-the-top and almost Brechtian performance Plowe gives. Part of me wants to believe this was a conscious decision director Will Arbery chose to employ, commenting on the absurd and larger-than-life presence of religion at the time, but I'm not entirely sure this was the case. Eventually the plot concludes with the removal of conflict from the outside world, and instead turns its attention on the group dynamic between its central characters. It’s a somewhat satisfying ending, relying on the gruesome to bring the story back full circle to its leading lady, well, Lady.
Blurring the lines between the past and present is a predominating focus to the piece. It’s clear that Weitz wants to obscure a definite sense of time period in placing the story in the early 1600s while having the characters speak in very modern and often crude convention. I have to admit that I spent a good amount of time confused, debating when exactly Lady takes place. The musical underscoring during scene transitions, contributed by Kevin Novinksy, provides us with contemporary songs, interlaced with industrial sound effects. Combine all of this with a stark set (designed by Kimie Nishikawa) with everything covered in either plastic, saran wrap, or trash bags, and you can’t help but wonder if you walked onto the set of Hostel. Arbery helps shape the idea of clashing time periods by giving antiquated body language to the story’s characters in some scenes, while having them act as sexual predators in others. The direction in some of the play’s more intimate scenes is perverse, but well done. Arbery allows the characters to drop historic pretense and connect on the most primordial level—contributing to themes of sexual manipulation and control.
I can’t say that Lady is an example of good theatre, but I can say that it is an example of interesting theatre. The piece suffers from relying too heavily on entertaining its audience with acts dark, sexual, and violent in nature. The source material may be the biggest culprit here, but I can’t shake the feeling that with a little more focus, Lady could be a great new work.
(Lady plays at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street, through November 1, 2015. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 2. Tickets are $18, $15 for students, and are available at www.artful.ly/lady. For more information visit www.facebook.com/ladyplay2015.)
Lady is written by Sofya Weitz and directed by Will Arbery. Music underscoring is by Kevin Novinsky, and set design is by Kimie Nishikawa. The cast includes Lola Kelly, Sasha Diamond, Eli Gelb and Jack Plowe.