Back in 1837, the future Countess de Castiglione was born to an aristocratic family from La Spezia, Italy.
Her name was Virginia Oldoini and by the time she was 16 years old, she had become the Countess de Castiglione by virtue of an arranged marriage to Count Francesco Verasis de Castiglione.
One of her cousins, Camillo Cavour, was a minister to King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont and he sent the countess to France, hoping she would act as an agent for the unification of Italy. Utilizing both her beauty and brains, the countess quickly seduced Napoleon himself and became his mistress within weeks of her arrival.By 1856, the countess first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson, one of the most sought-after portrait studios of the Second Empire. She met photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson and there began a collaboration that would produce more than 500 portraits of the Countess de Castiglione.
Obsessed by her own beauty, the countess attempted to re-create for the camera the defining moments of her life.
The life and portrait photography of the Countess de Castiglione is the basis for Theatre AUG’s fall production of the play, Is She Mad, or Does She Joke?, written and directed by Dr. Melanie Kitchen O’Meara, an associate professor of performance studies in the Department of Art and Design at Augusta University.
“I have been working with the Countess of Castiglione and her photographs for a really long time, longer than I’d like to admit. It’s probably been about 18 years,” O’Meara said, laughing. “I started learning about her and about her history and her portraits in classes when I was a graduate student at Louisiana State University.
“In fact, one of the lines in the show is, ‘She haunts me, holds me and I cannot explain why, but I’ll try.’ So, she has haunted me forever.”After writing about the countess and talking about her legacy at several conferences over the years, O’Meara said she finally decided it was time to take all of her research and create a group show with undergraduate students.
“This show tells her story and tries to spin her story in a little better light than most people spin her story. Because, if you research her, you’ll find many consider her a raging narcissist because she had over 500 portraits taken of herself,” O’Meara said. “But she also was pretty creative and crafty in the things that she was doing in her photographs and how she was titling them.”
One discussion she’s had with the cast members of the play is how we, as people, have been framed by different people in our lives over time, O’Meara said.
“So, I’ve tried to let the students insert their own voices and speak back to some of the frames that they have been put in, during their own lives, as well as with the production,” O’Meara said. “It’s been a very student-involved process.”
Augusta University senior and communication major Kiara Heffner’s short documentary on the makings of “Is She Mad, or Does She Joke?”
Shaylon Hughs, who plays the character of Virginia (which represents a version of the Countess of Castiglione’s personality), said she was intrigued by the countess and the deeper meaning behind O’Meara’s play.
“I like Dr. O’Meara’s thought-provoking plays and I also love the idea of someone who tries to break the mold. To me, that is who the countess is,” Hughs said. “She was a woman who just was like, ‘You know? Women are supposed to do this. So, I’m going to do the opposite. This is what you expect of me. So, this is what I’m going to do instead.’ I see a lot of myself in that kind of character.”While Hughs admits she might not be “as daring” as the countess, she can relate to the strength it took for the countess to make her own way in life.
“In general, I do not like to allow other people to tell me who I am,” she said. “And so having the opportunity to be able to depict and kind of bring to life a person who broke the mold, who wasn’t afraid to step out of the mold even or who would not even consciously admit that there was a mold, is just really awesome to me.”
Amber Jordan, who also plays a version of the countess in the character of The Sorceress, said she enjoys how the play captures several different sides of the Countess of Castiglione.
“In history, a lot of times you only get one point of view. But, in this play, we’re really getting to explore all the possibilities of who she was or who she might have been,” said Jordan, who is a junior math major. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing around with the character. Dr. O’Meara has given me a lot of freedom to use a witch voice with scary laughter. I even conjure the countess in one of the scenes.”
Shiloh Reimche, who is pursuing Augusta University’s new digital and visual storytelling bachelor’s degree, said she enjoys how the photography featured in the play can be compared to the modern era of selfies.“People put on this mask and try to enhance their own features through photography and selfies. You want to portray yourself how you would like to be, whether or not that is how you really are,” Reimche said. “And I think that’s very interesting how we can compare when the countess, however many hundreds of years ago, was taking photographs of herself to how we take photographs of ourselves today.”
Sebastian Greene, who is a freshman history major at Augusta University, plays a version of the countess called The Surrealist.
“My character, by virtue of being The Surrealist, I’m less defined than everyone else,” Greene said. “Everyone else has a trait that defines their character and the lines they say. But my character is explicitly undefined, so I can sort of be whatever I want and I’m able to go in any direction I want. There is a lot of freedom in my character, which has been extremely fun.”
Destiny Barrett, who plays a version of the countess called Oldoini, is a freshman cybersecurity major. She feels the play is much bigger than simply the story of the Countess of Castiglione.
“The play feels like it’s about so many more people because she’s framed as all these things like a narcissist, a witch and seductress, but she’s also a person and we talk about how she’s a person like all of us,” Barrett said. “I feel like that can be applied to just about everyone because we’re all framed as something, especially with social media. So, I really like that the show is very personal to each and every person who watches it.”
General public: $10
Augusta University alumni: $7
Seniors (60+): $7
Students and children: $5
AU and EGSC faculty and staff: $5
AU and EGSC students: Free with valid JagCard
Theatre AUG’s production of Is She Mad, or Does She Joke? is at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 12, and 13, and 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre.