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Hearts Full of Blood
How My Mother Died of Cancer, And Other Bedtime Stories

part of
The New York International Fringe Festival Encores Series

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hearts Full of Blood

Loath as I am to rag too much on any serious drama, the question must be asked: Is James Asmus's Hearts Full of Blood truly serious drama? "Based on a true story," the program cover insists, and yes, the story is about as dark as one can envision without entering Sweeney Todd territory. But Andrew Hobgood's Fringe Festival production, courtesy of Chicago's The New Colony theater company and playing through September 14 as part of the FringeNYC Encores series, is a shade too hard to accept without question.

The troubles start with its patness: the married couple, Jacob and Alison (Gary Tiedemann and Sarah Gitenstein), who are struggling to conceive and have already endured three miscarriages, mingling with his friend Kirk (Evan Linder) and her friend Suellen (Mary Hollis Inboden) and trying to hook them up. We get the obligatory party scene, right off the bat, where Kirk and Suellen meet uncute and fall in instant hate with each other, to the chagrin of their well-meaning hosts. Can there be any doubt that they will hook up — and Jacob and Alison's apparently sturdy union will sunder itself — before the evening is through?

The only question is how long these things will take to happen, and whether you'll believe them when they do. Frankly, the scenario as sketched is so absurdly impossible, you'll be hard pressed not to accept its theoretical plausibility, even if three of the actors do all they can to convince you otherwise. (Tiedemann has two stances, loose-limbed comedy and rigid-armed rage, and does little beyond alternate between the two; Linder and Inboden overplay their characters' arch jerkiness early on so they can soften themselves later — but then they’re about as substantial as melted ice cream.)

But Asmus overplays his hand, and is usually more interested in forcing skin-flaying realism than in letting the story tell itself. Constructed (according to press notes) in an improvisatory manner similar to the plays of Mike Leigh, the script is packed with dialogue that's simultaneously leaden and substance-free - background chatter relegated to center-stage status - and that doesn't help underscore the importance of Asmus's sober story about why love is so hard to find and hold on to. More often than not, it imbues the action with a flighty jokiness that leaves it feeling much like Asmus’s 2008 Fringe Festival musical, Love Is Dead, about romancing zombies. (That the characters themselves are all, in some way or another dead, I suppose is incidental.)

Life, however, burns brightly in Gitenstein, who alone of the performers successfully mines her character's inner emptiness without effecting an outer collapse. As she struggles against the twin spectres of need and coincidence that are tormenting her, she reveals Alison to be a woman who's truly desperate to love and be loved, and find the outlet for both she's never known. Though Alison’s specific struggle is one few of us (hopefully) will ever have to deal with, Gitenstein summons such horror and heartbreak that you may well see yourself in her constantly dimming eyes. Hers is a marvelous achievement that suffers only from being alone onstage; as both a script and a production, Hearts Full of Blood needs more of the heart and more of the blood that Gitenstein so readily provides.


How My Mother Died of Cancer, And Other Bedtime Stories

First-person quirkiness rapidly loses its verve when it's rendered by "him," "her," and "they," rather than "I." That's the insurmountable problem with How My Mother Died of Cancer, And Other Bedtime Stories: The lead character, Kate, insists at the beginning of her play-within-the-play that she wrote it and directed what you’re about to see, and has cast her actual family and friends (however awkwardly) in the roles of themselves. But that's not true. Kate is played by Elizabeth Romanski, the director is Laura Moss, and Chris Kelly (a male) wrote the play, and the program indicates no direct blood ties between the performers.

"That shouldn't matter!", you may be thinking, and you're right — it shouldn't, if the show finds a way to own, deal with, and dispel the necessary duplicity that keeps you at arm’s length from it. But because Kelly's play suffers from a constant meta overdose, removing its anchor to our reality renders meaningless everything that surrounds it. When Kate starts arguing with her father (Mike Boland) about his role in the performance, or when the “actress” playing the wasting-away Mom (Sharon Wyse) starts talking to him about the rehearsal period in which she helped him work through a difficult speech, it’s the self-conscious layers of writing you’re aware of, not the life they’re supposed to evoke.

There’s an intentional sense of disjointedness about things, as performing and theatrical styles overlap to create a semi-imaginary collage of Kate’s mother’s life, but coupled with all the meta, the effect is more of a playwright imposing tightly planned chaos than giving his created reality the tools it needs to reorder itself. Because the subject of the play is chaotic enough, Kelly's machinations feel cheap and false when they most need to feel real.

Some good ideas are on offer, at least: Boland's heartfelt rendering of a man being excluded from his wife's theatrical memorial (and, by extension, his daughter’s life), Kate's brother Tim (Jim DeProphetis) always speaking his "lines" in a dreary monotone accompanied by the same reductive shrugging gesture, and most significantly the simmering undercurrent of real feeling that suggests Kelly did indeed mean this to play as an emotional exploration and not an empty exercise in pseudo–Sarah Ruhl see-if-it-sticks assembly.

Kate and Dad’s different ways of dealing (or not dealing) with their loss propel the evening to a melancholy high that should lead to confrontations, catharsis, and ultimate satisfaction. But then someone does a “cancer dance” or reenacts an infomercial (for hospital bed aerobics) and the spell is broken. Without a real pay-off, something that makes the investment of wayward weirdness worth it, the action seems to exist only for its own limited sake. Lisa Kron’s 2004 play Well is a stellar example of how to play these games and build to a conclusion in which reality and fantasy truly become indistinguishable; How My Mother Died of Cancer never gets that far. Lacking the discipline needed to temper its ambitions, it never impresses as a human story about repressed feelings and instead becomes an object lesson in how such emotions wither and die onstage when the “cleverness” shining down on them is too intense.


Tickets online at FringeNYC Encores Series Tickets