According to Guinness World Records, the most prodigious female serial killer of all time was Countess Erzsebet Bathori, who lived in Hungary in the 15th and 16th centuries, where she is said to have tortured and murdered hundreds of young women. The dark, bloody story of Bathori is hardly fodder for light musical comedy, but it is the inspiration for a different kind of stage musical — writer and composer Chad Salvata’s “Vampyress.”
Co-produced by Ethos and the Vortex Theater, “Vampyress” is a gothic opera tinged with chords of modern and electronic music that brings an element of dark magic to Bathori’s violent story. The Vortex has mounted the show several times before, to much audience acclaim, and they bring it back now as a dark treat for the Halloween season.
In some ways, “Vampyress” is a departure from the Vortex’s typical fair. The company has become known, and acclaimed, for timely, topical works that speak deeply and directly to contemporary issues of social justice, providing a sorely needed platform for minority voices amid the Austin theatrical scene. Some of that work tends to be relatively bare bones, focusing on actors and ideas over large-scale production values.
“Vampyress,” on the other hand, is a much more timeless tale of sex, death and passion (in the sense of both passionate sensuality and passionate suffering) presented with extravagant music, lights, costuming, props and special effects. Ann Marie Gordon’s set combines with Jason Amato’s eerie, flickering lighting design and Salvata and Stephanie Dunbar’s ornate, intricate costuming (complimented by Amelia Turner’s makeup design), turning the small theater into an anteroom of hell and physicalizing Salvata’s gothic score.
Special note should be given to stage manager Tamara L. Farley, who keeps an entire show full of complicated lighting, sound and effects cues running smoothly, all to the extremely specific timing of an operatic score.
Directed by the Vortex’s artistic director Bonnie Cullum, “Vampyress” is something of an ode to female empowerment, even when taken to the extremes of brutality practiced by Bathori. As such, the entire cast is female, which surely made for an easier rehearsal process given the copious amounts of nudity present in the show. Though at times excessive, the nudity is never exploitative and in fact comes to have potent meaning in the show’s final moments.
Although the entire cast is highly talented (a necessity to simply pull off an opera filled with nudity, blood-letting and choreographed torture), Melissa Vogt’s star turn as Bathori is truly a standout, carrying the countess’ story from regal aloofness all the way through to crimson-stained feral breakdown. Hayley Armstrong, as the sorceress Davila, also provides a noteworthy performance, bringing an ethereal, otherworldly sense to the character that gives the opera some of its most frightening moments.
Full of nudity, violence and literally buckets of blood, “Vampyress” is a Halloween treat for adults only, a macabre evening of excess slightly in the vein of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Amid that cruelty, though, there is a seed of dark and violent beauty, and Salvata’s opera leaves its audience disturbed, aroused and more than a little afraid.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 21, with additional performance 8 p.m. Oct. 18
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org