The stage is marble and the cast appears in dark hooded robes, their faces chalk-white and eyes sunken; the theater feels unusually cold. A young woman slinks around the stage playing the waterphone, creating steely, alienating music, and King Amyclas of Sparta (Philip Goodwin) has a visage so wrinkled and worn that it gives Beckett’s a run for its money. In the prologue, we are told, “The title lends no expectation here / Of apish laughter,” and director Selina Cartmell’s production certainly holds good to that promise: even the blood is black.
In ancient Greece, lovesickness strangles an entire city. Orgilus (Jacob Fishel), the son of an advisor to the king, has watched as his true love, Penthea (Annika Boras), was forced to marry Bassanes (Andrew Weems), an hysterically jealous nobleman. As the play opens, he tells his father, Crotolon (Robert Langdon Lloyd), that he is leaving for Athens, when in fact he plans to remain in Sparta in disguise, hoping to secure a meeting with her. Penthea’s brother, the lionized general Ithocles (Saxon Palmer), returns home lovelorn himself—he has fallen for the princess Calantha (Bianco Amato), who is bequeathed to another—and soon realizes that by giving his sister away to the wrong man, he has been unforgivably cruel to the two lovers. In perhaps the play’s only uncomplicated union, Orgilus’ sister Euphrania (Margaret Robinson) decides to marry Ithocles’ friend Prophilus (Ian Holcomb), though they must await her brother’s return and approval. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, extreme love manifests as extreme violence, as murderous and suicidal impulses.
But despite this convoluted maze of desires (made even hazier by some actors doubling up on roles), Ford’s cast is surprisingly enervated; before walking into his death, Hamlet boldly declares, “We defy augury,” whereas here everyone seems to wait around for the inevitable. Assisted by the barren lighting, they watch as darkness closes in, barely working up the effort to resist their fate. Deaths never occur spontaneously, but seem to be accepted by both the murderer and the victim beforehand. Triggering the ultimate bloodbath, Penthea starves herself to death, perhaps the most indicative moment of the play: for these characters, the only action is inaction, here taken to its logical extreme.
The effect is incredibly draining and occasionally monotonous; there is grim irony when Amyclas, barely able to stand, announces, “Your old king, is ent’ring / Into his youth again!” but the only genuine relief comes from Bassanes’ outrageous fits. Mostly, The Broken Heart is littered with lines like, “Our home is in the grave,” or, “As for the old, forget it; / ‘T is buried in an everlasting silence.” Under Ms. Cartmell’s unremitting direction, it becomes difficult to single out actors, since they all tread the stage like chess pieces nearing endgame. Still, there are moments of tremendous power—for example, when a dance is thrice interrupted by news of deaths and the guests continue their revelries with macabre, forced grins, or when the bodies of the deceased reappear to stare blankly at those who have survived.
By the end, it is difficult to tell which is at fault—the play or the production. The greatest tragedies are augmented with comedy (just as the greatest comedies are augmented with tragedy), and The Broken Heart is simply relentless. We leave the theater gasping for air and recalling a time when Titus Andronicus seemed cynical and bleak.