Theatre on Fire, in its tenth year of staging edgy, inquisitive theater, is presenting IT FELT EMPTY WHEN THE HEART WENT AT FIRST BUT IS ALRIGHT NOW (playing through Nov. 1st) written by British Blackburn Prize winning playwright, Lucy Kirkwood. Because TOF is turning 10 this season, all tickets at every show are $10! That’s reason to celebrate!
Kirkwood’s play, which might have taken a hard look at human trafficking, doesn’t delve nearly deeply enough. It’s content to be a character study of a naive young Russian émigré whose spirit is broken by a lover who is in truth a pimp. Why she fails to realize immediately what’s going on in front of her—is beyond me but let’s say it’s Kirkwood’s poetic license driving the story.
We meet Dijana in three different scenes (not in chronological order) which demonstrate how she copes psychologically with her disturbing, new life in England. Director Maureen Shea’s visceral production features two remarkable actresses: Elizabeth Milanovich as the disillusioned, delusional Russian woman and Obehi Janice as perhaps her only friend in the world.
When the scenes change, we change our locale, from the downstairs playing area to the upstairs space and back again. The light loves Milanovich in the first scene: She glows as she relates her plan to buy her way out of prostitution. But the luminosity fades as her situation worsens. Designer Chris Bocchiaro doubles back with the upstairs lighting so that Milanovich is silhouetted against a window overlooking the actual street below us. Brittle, end of summer ivy leaves crush against the glass, trapped by the wind forcing them against the pane, a nifty metaphor for the girl’s falling fortunes.
Milanovich is a quivering mass of cheery denial which eventually gives way to fearful twitches reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve’s in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION. The actress’ stamina is simply astonishing, carrying two thirds of the play all by herself (and her Russian is spot on, to boot.). We certainly feel sorry for the poor, broken girl who clings to fantasies. Milanovich generates plenty of heat with her portrayal but Kirkwood doesn’t shed much light on the subject of sexual slavery. The character with much more dimension (and promise) is Janice’s tough, confidant roommate but she, alas, is limited to only one scene.
In the realm of the bizarre, this has been a week for dramas about prostitutes, from the doomed Camille character in Boston Lyric Opera’s stunning La Traviata to Cameron Cronin’s show stopping courtesan in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s wild COMEDY OF ERRORS to TOF’s fragile portrait of innocence betrayed.