THE BROKEN HEART (Quintessence): Dark matter

Mattie Hawkinson (as Penthea), Josh Carpenter (as Orgilus), Gregory Isaac (as Bassanes). Photo by Shawn May.

Mattie Hawkinson (as Penthea), Josh Carpenter (as Orgilus), Gregory Isaac (as Bassanes). Photo by Shawn May.

THE BROKEN HEART is well paired with LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST in Quintessence Theatre Group’s Love & Longing Repertory. These two very different plays feature stunning poetry and song and share some coincidental internal connections. And each has a contrasting twist: Shakespeare’s witty comedy, LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST drips with artifice, yet resolves itself with practicality. And THE BROKEN HEART’s prologue, for a heartrending play, invites enjoyment:

In which, if words have cloth’d the subject right,
You may partake a pity with delight.

Melancholy John Ford, often considered a late Elizabethan, was more ‘himself’ and less ‘Shakespearean’ than other less bold Cavalier dramatists. The steadiness of Elizabeth’s reign was over. The Queen, dead before Ford wrote his first play, had been gone for 30 years when THE BROKEN HEART was printed. James I had come and gone, and the troubling Charles I was on the throne. Antique as his work might seem to us now, and though it has echoes of Shakespeare, John Ford was not a true Elizabethan but part of an emerging and more modern sensibility.

Set in Sparta in the days of oracles, the play turns on questions of morality. I will not outline the whole complicated plot here, but I’ll take a stab at a brief description of the engine of the story: Panthea’s brother, Ithocles, makes her marry Bassanes, an older man, when she is in love with her fiancé, Orgilus, who is deeply in love with her.  As an engaged woman, pure Panthea becomes morally compromised by bedding with her husband, which drives her to insanity. Be assured there’s psychological suffering and outsize passion to spare in this dark tale of lost loves. The price paid for scheming, revenge, violence and too-late realizations is heartbreak and death… and scarlet billows start to spread.

The show is superbly staged by director Alexander Burns, who not only has a talent for the felicitous arrangement of actors, but also for stunning scenic design. Elegant changing hues of light and color play on the panels of his backdrop. Strategic stage lighting by David Sexton highlights significant moments. Jane Casanave’s costumes help to define the characters, and Steven Cahill’s original music and sound rounds out the experience.   

Josh Carpenter as Orgilus and Mattie Hawkinson as Penthea own their roles as the main and problematic love interests. One of playwright Ford’s talents was his way of retaining sympathy for those who would be considered villains, two of whom are Ithocles and Bassanes. Daniel Miller and Gregory Isaac, respectively, do excellent work in those complex roles. Standouts are John Williams as both the Spartan King and the Oracle. And Michael Gamache’s foolish servant and his Counselor of State are played with equal and opposite flair. And a gallant princess, nobly played by Ebony Pullum, has only formal contact with someone she loves beyond reason. Truly fine acting is turned in by all, from royalty and courtiers to amusing attendants and zany servants. All invest in their intelligently delivered lines. The work of the cast is even more admirable when you consider that they’re also acting in the parallel play, LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST.

The great literary critic William Hazlitt dismissed THE BROKEN HEART as impious and nonsensical. There’s deceit and murder, and a brother who longs for incest, which certainly shows a lack of piety. The plotting admittedly is devious. In this production there’s an instance of nonsense when our hero, disguised as a monk-scholar, has a lot to say, yet neither his sister nor his beloved recognize his voice.

I wouldn’t call this play an automatic crowd pleaser, and it’s almost three hours long. But THE BROKEN HEART richly rewards attention paid to it. The person seated on my left at the performance engaged with it and found it entertaining. The one on my right pronounced it an ordeal. Where you, as an audience member, might weigh in on the spectrum of opinion would be due in large part to your willingness to concentrate and keep abreast of the twisting plot. The program supplies a synopsis, and the rest is up to you.

Quintessence actors skillfully meet the twin challenges of subtleties of dialogue and grotesqueries of action as they present John Ford’s exquisite poetry, hot drama, and cold blood.

[The Sedgwick Theater, Germantown Ave, Mt. Airy] March 15- April 21, 2017; QuintessenceTheatre.org

 

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.