Despite the kooky premise, there’s a lot to find familiar in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs.
Sure, most of us probably aren’t blood-addicted nurses descended from Eastern European nobility who can sniff out your blood type from 50 paces, but our host Bianka has a familiar tale nonetheless.
This show kicks off Northern Light Theatre’s season and it feels very much like the kind of play we’ve come to expect from NLT: an odd premise, an exploration of pathology and a short, candid script that originated as a Fringe hit. (Not at the Edmonton Fringe, though – this was written by South African-Australian playwright/chanteuse Joanna Weinberg.)
Walking in to the theatre, you’re treated to wonderfully campy Halloween décor: seating is cabaret-style and there are various spooky decorations (and candies!) on each of the tables; the small raised stage is lined with a set of bejeweled teeth; and our host, one Baroness Bianka, appears from the back of this glittering maw, regarding us with a piercing gaze, arched eyebrows and cheekbones sharp enough to file your fangs on, before launching into her tale.
Johnston plays Baroness Bianka with stately, deadpan charm. (And in a fabulous black-and-white sequined dress – costumes by NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt.) Towering above the audience, Johnston’s Bianka seems more like a stern school teacher or maybe a no-nonsense aunt, as opposed to a registered nurse who’s here as part of her addiction recovery. You can bet her patients never acted up, or at least not more than once.
Hemophilia – the love of blood – is an esoteric addiction, certainly. But as Bianka reveals through storytelling and song, the tolls that it has taken on her – the path through escalating addiction and eventual recovery – follows the same trajectory as many other mainstream addictions. Her descriptions of the allure of her drug of choice, the overpowering cravings, the deep satisfaction of indulging them, and then the crushing shame shortly afterwards, were uncomfortably real.
Weinberg’s descriptions of cutting are particularly powerful and raw, and Johnston is careful to bring respect, almost reverence, into her performance of this potentially triggering material. The playwright’s own daughter was a cutter and the script delves into the subject of self-injury without coming off as preachy or judgmental. It’s a very humanizing take on something that’s too often described in terms that are either overly clinical, or straight-up patronizing.
Johnston’s Bianka is as standoffish and regal as you’d expect from an actual baroness. She’s a bit stiff and flat until she breaks out into exaggerated caricature or animated outburst, making those moments all the funnier. Her disco boogie was particularly hilarious.
The music is also wonderful, and the highlight of the show – this is a cabaret, after all! We’re treated to a range of musical styles with strong klezmer overtones and frequent detours into contemporary genres (like that aforementioned dip into disco). In a couple numbers, Johnston plays the accordion to great effect – an instrument she learned for this role. (Listen to this episode of the podcast to hear her talk about that in more detail.)
Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs is fun way to celebrate the Halloween season – the atmosphere of this production alone is enough to get you right and properly in the spooky mood. There’s also a depth and thoughtfulness rounding out this show – but not enough to make things too heavy – and a commanding one-woman performance.
Want to hear more about this show? Listen to this episode of the podcast.
Until Saturday, Nov 2
Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns
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