Theatre for a New Audience’s scintillating production of John Ford’s 1620-something tragedy, The Broken Heart, is at the Duke on 42nd Street through March 4th. It was my first encounter with the Duke Theatre and I was impressed. It’s a black box, configured as a thrust with many opportunities for entrances and exits to and within the space, and affording a controlled lighting scheme. Seating wraps around three sides with comfy chairs at center. The Broken Heart is a three-hour play but I barely noticed — those are good chairs, not to mention a riveting production.
Shakespeare wrote bawdily in Elizabethan England. John Ford followed a decade or so later in the 1620s, writing in the Caroline era (that is, during the reign of Charles I). Shakespeare’s bawdy being frowned upon, Mr. Ford wrote abstemiously of the same lusts, lies, and naughtiness, but not as well. Not many plays by John Ford are extant and The Broken Heart is considered one of his best. And it is a good tale, with love and chastity, lust, ravishment, and revenge. People in John Ford plays were upright, uptight, and sure of their moral strength, even though The Broken Heart takes place in ancient Sparta. They do not lack the stuff of bawdy. They’re passionate, they just are extraordinarily repressed, so when their passions explode, they implode at the same time, and there’s bound to be blood.
The actors at Theatre for a New Audience have the chops to rise above a less than lyrical script and make it sing in some places, stumble a bit in others. What stands out is the fine, fine acting. This cast is highly skilled and handles choreography, song, and some difficult language with aplomb.
As the first Broken Heart, Annika Boras does an astounding job as Penthea, betrothed to Orgilus but married off to a wealthy older man by her twin brother, Ithocles. Ms. Boras has a stillness in her well-bred misery for the first half of the play; then, as Penthea starves herself, she gets almost giddy. Finally she runs mad in a scene that is truly powerful with an artist of Ms. Boras’ magnitude. She is compelling every moment she’s onstage.
As the second Broken Heart, Jacob Fishel pulls us along in his love, hate, and vengeance as Orgilus. His betrothed is married to a suspicious and cruel man, Bassanes. Orgilus intends to leave Sparta to protect Penthea and himself from Bassanes’ irrational jealousy. Alas, he does not truly do this, but rather disguises himself in plain sight. (I didn’t say all the plot points worked; it’s an absurd convention used in drama as well as comedy, that the closest people in a person’s life don’t recognize him when he dresses differently and tosses on an Irish lilt in ancient Sparta). Mr. Fishel, however, is engaging, witty, passionate, and articulate in this role. Orgilus is the deviously driving force in the play, and he’s driven by anger. He finally has the power to heal or kill, and chooses the easier way.
The third Broken Heart is the nasty Ithocles himself, when he discovers love unrequited, and suddenly pities his tormented sister. Very nice work by Saxon Palmer in this role, allowing us to hate him, then pity him, to the point of forgetting that this is a drama, not a romance (that is, all will not be well).
The prize for most surprising Broken Heart goes to the Princess of Sparta, Calantha, played by Bianca Amato. I warmed to Ms. Amato as the play progressed – a chilly and correct princess in black, she developed surprising passions, all the way to her final whirling in white in a truly creepy scene. Hers is the Broken Heart of the title, since hers is the death directly caused by her broken heart. Ms. Amato has a powerful voice, noble bearing, then a smile that makes her character come alive.
John Keating did fine work as Armostes, counselor of the court; then he headed off to a different place somewhere between Marty Feldman and Harpo Marx to become comic relief as the wild-haired Phulas, servant to mean Bassanes. Amyclas, King of Sparta was well played by Philip Goodwin, to the point that we worry for Sparta when he dies. Truly, the whole company was first rate.
The setting of the play by Antje Ellermann is singular in a series of whites and grays. Its two levels, steps, ladders, hidden rooms and alcoves are all a delight to play on. The lonely banquet scenes start with color then the fruit grows moldy. Without being intrusive, the settings were clever and effective as was the lighting design by Marcus Doshi. There will be blood in a play of this type – a revenger’s play. But even in this, director Selina Cartmell had to surprise us. This was a black-and-white production and remained so. Red appears black in black-and-white photography, and so the flowing blood was black in Sparta. This production is Ms. Cartmell’s American debut, and she is most welcome.
Costume design by Susan Hilferty is marvelous, simple, practical, and sometimes quite beautiful. Choreography by Annie-B Parson is probably not Spartan, but she creates smooth and graceful ritual, beautifully executed by all. It is part of the drama of the final scenes, allowing for momentary freezes in a well-staged build. Composer David Van Tieghem provided lovely melodies for the sweet voice of Margaret Loesser Robinson, who played two very different characters. Another musician opened the evening on an instrument that made magical sounds when induced by Molly Yeh, who wanders like a melodic line through the action of the play.
John Ford could not have escaped seeing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of his own plays were performed by The King’s Men. Unfortunately, well-structured as the play is (Ford did study law, after all), what Ford did not learn from the Bard was how to use verse. Shakespeare’s verse instructs his actors how to play the scenes and the characters. The verse shapes the performances and the play, an aid to the actors. John Ford is a dramatist, but no poet. His speeches do not build, but harangue. They are obstacles the actors must overcome. There are too many one-note characters in this play who were enhanced by the actors performing them, digging deep for more notes to make a progression, perhaps even a harmony. Mr. Ford could have used some drawing lessons to learn a thing or two about shading.
Luckily, good actors can make a lesser play soar. This was a fine production, imaginatively and strongly guided by Selina Cartmell, and acted almost to perfection by the company. Whatever the flaws of this 17th century play, I highly recommend you get to the Duke on 42nd Street to see it before March 4th.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some early 17th century verse, but not Mr. Ford’s.