Off Broadway Reviews
The invocation is appropriate for a piece that is alternately welcoming in its openness and frustrating in its generalities. Since the theatre is in its very nature a refuge for misfits, there is a good chance that most people in attendance fit the target audience. In its rap-infused, poetic stylings, Heart charts one person's odyssey that begins with a seemingly storybook marriage that turns sour, which is followed by a series of one-night stands, a passionate flame, and an almost willful self-sabotage of a committed relationship. Indeed, there is something comforting in the rhythms of the language and the story's romantic ebbs and flows. Most us, whether or not we have ever felt "other" (and who hasn't?), can see versions of our own amorous experiences reflected on stage.
Throughout the narrative, Anouka refers to "the beast," the ineffable part of herself that rears its ugly head through self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and perceived judgments that often come between her and her partners. Until she can conquer, or at the very least subdue, the beast, there is no chance for real intimacy. This beast for the performer and the story, however, is exasperatingly elusive and amorphous.
In several ways Heart, which is mostly set in London, is reminiscent of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's one-person play (and subsequent television series) about a British woman's sexual escapades and the lovers she consumes and discards along the way. The primary difference between the shows is that Waller-Bridge brings the audiences into very dark and uncomfortable places. We get to know in excruciating detail the idiosyncrasies of each partner through hilarious and jaw-dropping sexual encounters and cringe-inducing rejoinders.
The affairs of Heart are much less specific, and we do not get to know the particulars of the key figures. This is a shame because Anouka is a supremely warm and engaging presence. She is instantly likable, and she seems more than willing to share the deepest elements of her own impetuous heart. As if to protect the identities of her real-life relations, though, she holds back on information that would provide shading to fill in the contours of the individualistic sketches.
As a result, the story stubbornly remains mostly at the metaphorical rather than dramatic level, and this is exemplified by Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design. The stage is draped in red and pink tulle, and in the beginning of the piece when the performer describes a wedding in which she is wearing a white dress and the groom is in a James Bond suit, the set recalls a gigantic and frilly valentine. As divorce looms and emotional aimlessness sets in, the tulle becomes a literal trap as it ensnares the helpless lover and drops white, lacy veils from the flies. (Jen Schriever's gorgeous lighting captures the fleeting fairytale feeling and offers lacerating illumination as the show proceeds.)
While Anouka's story is at times in danger of getting lost in layers of tulle, under Ola Ince's direction, the character seems to be in constant motion. It is a show that would benefit from more periods of restfulness. For example, about midway through the play, a two-story chair inexplicably appears, and there is some confusing accompanying choreography. In addition, there is musicality in Anouka's writing, but it is at odds with a continuous under beat and occasional melodramatic over-scoring. (Renell Shaw and Fitz Patton supplied the original music and sound design.)
Fleabag demonstrated that a single performer seated in (a regular-sized) chair can expose the most harrowing and recognizable aspects of finding and losing one's self in love. Anouka's play and performance are at their most effective when the show slows down, takes a breath, and uses lyrical verse to tap into the gentle beating of the heart.