By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Everyone’s grandmother has an accordian in the basement,” says Kristin Johnston, pointing at a battered case with judicious applications of duct tape.
This venerable objet is not some sign of random self-improvement on Johnston’s part. She’s learned to play the accordion especially for Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, the black — no, blood-soaked — cabaret comedy that launches the Northern Light Theatre season Friday. It references lurid tales of Elizabeth Bathóry, the infamous Transylvanian countess thought to have killed hundreds of children and bathed in their blood.
As director Trevor Schmidt has described the piece, by the South Africa-born Australian playwright/songwriter Joanna Weinberg, “it is a one-woman accordion musical; I’m not kidding. It is bizarre. It is crazy.” The ‘one woman’ at the heart of this enterprise has a passion, an obsession, an escalating fetish … for blood. The nursing profession has never had a more enthusiastic recruit. Yes, the Baroness is an addict, we are her fellow addicts, and she’s in confessional mode.
Johnston is more diplomatic. “She is unusually interested in blood, shall we say. And there is a reason for that,” she says of the vaguely eastern European protagonist she plays.
In acquiring an instrument and a new skill, Johnston has been tutored by accordionist extraordinaire (not to mention composer, arranger, musical director) Darrin Hagen. His statuesque drag alter-egos, including a pulchritudinous mermaid, have been known to strap on the accordian and have at it. And he has warned before now of the dangers of getting a pneumatic boob caught in the squeezebox. Johnston has learned her lesson the hard way: “always wear a bra when playing the accordion.”
He started her “on a baby beginner’s accordian,” as she puts it. And she’s graduated. At a recent dinner party at Johnston’s place, people passed the accordion as well as the salt. Everyone had a turn.
If you saw the tall, willowy Johnston playing older and then some as Victoria, a four million-year-old skeleton come to life (and learning to walk upright and wear a cardigan) in Origin of the Species at Northern Light Theatre last fall, you already know something about comic fearlessness.
Just before a stint with the Citadel/Banff professional program — she played a grotesque arriviste in Sense and Sensibility — she injured her knee. Squatting as Victoria required a certain trouper’s fortitude. “I was so grateful for the team we had,” she smiles. “I was more worried about the nude body suit; I was thinking ‘I’m not sure anybody needs to see that’…”
The Stettler gymnast-turned-theatre kid who went to Red Deer College and then to the Canadian College of Performing Arts on the West Coast, has a theatre resumé that’s a veritable gallery of oddball characters. In Rebecca Merkley’s appealing 2016 musical comedy The Unsyncables — about an underdog synchronized swim team beset by slick mean girls — there she was, in a bathing cap throughout, hilarious as a glum eastern European who can’t float and needs water wings.
The skeptical look on Olga’s face as the concept of synchronized swimming is explained to her is something I still remember. “Playing 12 when you’re not, well…” Johnston smiles benignly.
“I feel comedy; I’m comfortable with comedy,” says the actor, who’s funny and very self-deprecating in person. “I do have a strong sense of comedic timing; that I do admit.”
Her initial attraction to Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, she says, was to the comedy of the title character. “She’s fun. Ridiculous but fun,” says Johnston, who has three kids and teaches music theory when she’s not in a show. “The way (the Baroness) speaks has infiltrated my life.” Especially when the word “vampire” (that would be “wampire”) comes up in conversation.
Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs is set forth as a cabaret, not a play, “a beverage, a microphone stand, an accordian. And that’s a relief,” says Johnston, who added to her theatrical arsenal of skills last summer by stage managing Guys in Disguise’s Flora and Fawna sequel. Of the 10 songs, eight are originals and two — one by Queen, one by Tom Lehrer — are not. Stage manager Liz Allison says “they’re real ear-worms.”
Everyone has an addiction of some sort, Johnston muses. Hers is chocolate (her husband challenged her to go without for a month). Director Schmidt, she says, admits to an addiction to terrible TV. She smiles. “You have one, too.”
Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Written by: Joanna Weinberg
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Kristin Johnston
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through Nov. 2
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com