So we've reached another Downton Abbey season – cue the piano theme song – and with it more parodies. There was P. Diddy's Downton Diddy video and Downton Arby's. There's Downton Abbey erotica. There's even Downton Tabby, a book about cats, and its counterpart, Mouseton Abbey. Now, you can add to that list actress Kate Hess' one-woman, murder mystery Murder Abbey, playing at the Fountain Theater through Jan. 31.
In under an hour, Hess lovingly mocks nearly all English period drama conventions, namely the Masterpiece Theater hit, which, for the uninitiated, is mostly about three, bored, well-to-do sisters and the saps who love and wait on them. That and Maggie Smith's zingers. (“Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”) Hess inhabits all eight Downton-inspired characters, starting, of course, with the lowly, scullery maid damned to servitude. She can't pronounce her H's and informs the audience that the butler has been stabbed.]
Other characters include the haughty, eldest sister; middle and perpetually unlucky-in-love middle sister; and rebellious, youngest sister, who announces, “Once women can wear pants, I'll never have to close my legs again. I can be free… to fornicate.” But the poor middle sister. She's Downton's Jan Brady, and Hess makes her so unloved and grotesque-looking she has to be hidden in an attic. There's other downstairs folk, a Boardwalk Empire – inspired flapper girl and everyone's favorite non-character, series host Laura Linney, whose creepy stare and rigid face “seem completely soulless.”
Last week on opening night, Hess sat down with us for a brief chat – the second episode was airing that night, so no time to lose. She also had to tweet as @ObriensBangs, her Twitter page inspired by conniving lady's maid O'Brien, whose tight sausage curls are the most menacing thing on the show.
“I pretty much love all costume dramas,” says Hess, a Seattle transplant, who lives in Koreatown. (She even studied theater in London for a year.) “I'm a huge Agatha Christie fan. I love all the Poirots and Miss Marples. When Downton Abbey first started, I watched the first episode and I was just blown away. The acting is so great. It's a beautiful location. It really draws on the genre conventions and feels really familiar when you're watching it.”
Like many Anglophiles of a certain age, Hess's love affair with Masterpiece Theater dates back to the '80s. “When we were little, my sisters and I made a sketch comedy show with our little video camera called Masterhess Theater,” says Hess, 30. “I remember watching the original Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited.”
English appreciation aside, Hess believes we're being usurped by British TV. In the show, she includes snapshots of Rod Stewart, Simon Cowell, scones, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey before proclaiming: “They don't even have good food in England!”
Hess actually conceived of the idea before the Downton boom, and has been performing the parody in New York, Seattle and here at Upright Citizens Brigade since 2012.
“I originally wanted to do a big manor-house murder-mystery incorporating elements of Agatha Christie,” she says. “Once Downton Abbey came out and was so popular, I thought this is a way for people who aren't familiar with Masterpiece Theater to have a way into to what this genre is about and watch all other Masterpiece shows. They really are great. Well, most of them.”
The new Upstairs, Downstairs? Yawn.
Though Downton Abbey is known for its cast of hunky male suitors, scheming valets and repressed homosexuals, Hess is keeping her spoof strictly female.
“I originally wanted to do Alan Cumming because he introduces Masterpiece Mystery, but I took him out,” she says. “I feel like a lot of times you see comedy shows and the women are underrepresented, so I just wanted to showcase as many different women as I could.”
Hess, however, is considering expanding the show.
“I would like to incorporate other costume dramas,” she says. “I think it would be really fun to have a Game of Thrones part.”
Somewhere out there, Maggie Smith is pursing her lips and tapping her cane.
Does Hess have any predictions for this season? (We'd personally like to see middle sister Edith finally snag a man, and to hell with the rest of them.)
“I hope it is her year, but I have to say, I don't like her current boyfriend,” Hess says. “I think he's too old and he's married. She can do way better than him. That is my evaluation.”
Murder Abbey runs Jan 22-23 and 31 at the Fountain Theatre. More info at murderabbey.tumblr.com.
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