By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The chandeliers give off a lurid red glow. The bandstand will make you smile; a sparkly set of outsized teeth with pointy incisors, the inspiration of director/ set and costume designer Trevor Schmidt. The stage accoutrements? One accordion, one intravenous pole with cheery red hanging blood bags.
“Velcome to ze Addiction Room!,” cries the exotic cabaret artist who appears between the upper and lower choppers in a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder (lighting by Elise Jason, soundscape by Darrin Hagen). Some people just have a knack for making an entrance.
Kristin Johnston, the star, and sole occupant, of Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs by the Australian songwriter/playwright Joanna Weinberg, is a vision of old-school sultry. Which is to say red-lipsticked, born to wear sequins, statuesque in her sexy form-fitting black and silver gown. Her hair is a platinum sculpture, film noir in the front, mid-period Mozart in the back.
The fabulous Baroness has got killer charisma, and she knows it, in Johnston’s cordial, funny, delish performance, with its winking air of ‘I know what you’re thinking’ about it. She’s here to tell her story, “for the wery first time.” It’s a confessional with musical theatre songs and a predilection for rhyme, starting with the catchy opening number “Everybody has got a leetle addiction.” It’s an extended list (spanking, banking, planking…) that ends with a crucial question. “How far will you go … until you’re caught and conwicted?.”
The blueblood Baroness is addicted to red blood. She’s addicted to the look of it, the feel of it, the heady metallic bouquet of a nice A (or B, or AB, or, as she says, her favourite A Rhesus Negative). She wouldn’t kick an O out of bed, though it’s pretty common (her own type, with clotting factor 3.5), the mere merlot of blood types. She sniffs the audience like the connoisseur she is, and susses out possibilities at each table.
“Blood excites me ewer since I vuss leetle girl,” she tells us, recounting her tale of escalating immersion from childhood (she was “blood sisters with whole neighbourhood”) to the thrill of menstruation — and a career choice that was a natural. Nursing.
Guess what’s in the Baroness’s fridge? After a stressful day on the job, nothing beats a relaxing bloodbath. As addictions go, blood (unlike smoking or pork rinds or meth) connects you arterially with the “source of life itself.” A brief period of Biblical research confirms it, with all that inspirational talk of being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
I’ll leave the Baroness to tell you the tale and the backstory. As she learns, the family genealogy is revealing. You’ve heard perhaps of Elisabeth Bathóry, a Hungarian aristocrat and serial killer, with a prodigious resumé in the slaughter of children for cosmetic reasons.
“Blood madness” can get you in a lot of trouble, and is greedy with the blood supply. And self-help has its limits for curing addictions, our star finds. Showbiz confession is helpful. And so, here we are, together in the Addiction Room, contemplating the season’s only rhyming (so far) of “illusion” and “transfusion.”
Weinberg’s songs, eight originals and two on loan from Tom Lehrer and Queen, are variable in quality, in truth (unlike Hagen’s musical arrangements, which are invariably high-quality). But when Weinberg nails it, in jaunty patter songs or plaintive ballads with a twist, the results have a comical breeziness or oddball wistfulness.
Johnston throws herself with zest into the fun of this stylish little show. Sometimes the Baroness accompanies herself with a tambourine, Gypsy-style. Sometimes she straps on the accordion — Johnston was tutored, from scratch, by musical director Hagen, a mean hand at the instrument himself. His arrangements include judicious applications of sepulchral chimes, a nice Transylvanian touch.
Never has Lehrer’s The Masochism Tango had more literal relevance. When the Baroness tells us she has blood on her hands, she’s not kidding. Our inspirational quadruple threat — singing, dancing, acting, bloodletting — may be starring in an allegory, but she’s not dancing in metaphors.
So grab yourself a Bloody Mary at the bar, find yourself a table at the cabaret, old chum, and feel the life force coursing through your veins.
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