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He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box: 45 Minutes of Lyrical Racial Divide

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box: 45 Minutes of Lyrical Racial Divide

Adrienne Kennedy is a playwright of poetic beauty and roughness. With her first play in over a decade, He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box sings and glides at us through the hazy cloud of a memory play, bringing to mind the haunting and rapturous Tennesse Williams. Lulling us into a hypnotic daze, this play is a racial charged descent into reminiscent dread and drama, floating in on the uncomfortable divide of the 1940’s America. Gorgeously brought forth on the Theatre For A New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center stage, this complex meditation in racially mixed sexual and love relationships caresses us with smoothly spoken (and sung) contemplations while secretly stabbing us with the hardened reality of racism and brutality of the world surrounding the two beautiful lovers.

Kennedy has been a powerhouse in American theater since the early 1960s, influencing generations of playwrights with her haunting and fragmented memory plays, exploring racism and violence through poetic alienation. Kennedy transcends the normality of plot and character through radical restructuring and experimentation, messing with linear depictions of standard storytelling to get to the emotional core of race, kinship and the violence swirling around this time period in American history and social norms. The unknowns of parentage and the mythology surrounding our fathers and mothers play an intricate role in her semi-autobiographical tales, and in He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box, Kennedy once again succeeds in pulling us deep inside these two characters’ mythology and dousing us with the confusion around the goodness and/or badness of their parents, their town, and all that lies around them.

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Layered with lyrically beautiful Southern accents, the mixed race beauty, Kay, played effortlessly by the smooth Juliana Canfield (HBO’s “Succession“) loves and is loved by Chris, the white skinned son of the town’s founding father, played convincingly by Tom Pecinka (2ST’s Torch Song).  The play begins with a glorious exchange of emotional declarations and history on the eve of Chris’s departure to New York City where he hopes to become an actor.  They talk and flirt in the most natural and sweet way, that even with all the references to the world swirling around them, we almost forget that this is a time period when this coupling will only bring trouble to them both. Beyond that moment of engagement, the two speak to us as if we are all conduits that can fly their words of love across the land to the lover who waits desperately for them.  They speak of their personal histories and share tales of their parents trials and tribulations in fragmented snippets of dream-like memories, barely mentioning the obstacles that most obviously lay ahead of them.

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It’s hypnotic and gorgeous these readings of love letters from beyond, matched in beauty and form with the exciting visuals created by video designer, Austin Switser (Spoleto Festival’s Onegin), lighting designer, Donald Holder (Lincoln Center’s Oslo), with stunning musical compositions and sound design by Justin Ellington (LCT’s Pipeline) layered on top. The landscape is spectacular, playing out on all the surfaces exposed on Christopher Barreca’s (Broadway’s Rocky) powerful and simplistic set. These languid and relaxed mappings of their world and their town resonate with all the complex beauty of this time of racial conflict and violence, while also being somewhat hard to follow and fully understand. But the weight of the world, and the heaviness of the Georgian town that is projected for us all to see and feel, is thick in the air and impossible to ignore.  This all can, in no way, turn out as hopeful and optimistic as these two lovers make it sound.

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Gloriously directed with a slow sauntering Southernness by Evan Yionoulis (Broadway’s The Violet Hour), the brutality of the world never seems too far away.  It is as if, in these feverishly fragmented dreamscapes, the town is watching them from across the room, much like the still macabre mannequin that sits and reads in one corner of the space. This figure that never leaves them alone on stage, is the complicated scion of the town, Chris’s father, Harrison Aherne, the architect of segregation in the town’s structure, but also the man who fathered several children with a number of black mistresses. For all his generosity towards his mixed race offspring, his steadfast control on the racial divides within the town he created casts a heavy and ominous shadow over the lovers, one that they are unable to shake off.  Much like the emotional punch this show delivers in the end.  With the powerful creation on display, He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box is one of the most visually intoxicating productions seen at Theatre For A New Audience, and one that will haunt my memories and dreams for some time to come.

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Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka in Theatre for a New Audience’s production of HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Evan Yionoulis; all photos by Gerry Goodstein.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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