Theater archives

The Broken Heart: Selina Cartmell Revives a Sex-and-Death-Obsessed Tragedy


Shakespeare casts a long shadow, particularly over the decadent sex-and-death-obsessed tragedians who flourished in the years after he died and before the Puritans finally shut down the theaters (because of all the sex and death). The pervy, ghoulish John Ford is perhaps the most unjustly neglected writer of this cohort—and so Theatre for a New Audience and director Selina Cartmell deserve accolades not just for reviving Ford’s little-known The Broken Heart, but also for giving it the kind of revelatory production that proves it’s an overlooked classic.

Diseased love was Ford’s special subject, and The Broken Heart is no exception. He was interested in the edgy border territories where chaste love morphs into feverish lust, married affection becomes obsessive jealousy, and sibling attachment turns incestuous. The plot of The Broken Heart is a tortured maze—but that’s the point. The frenzied scheming and counter-scheming matches the pathological patterning of his characters’ minds.

Set in ancient Greece, the play revolves around two young Spartans who are unhealthily involved in their sisters’ love lives. Before the action begins, Ithocles (Saxon Palmer), a war hero and political favorite, forbids his twin, Penthea (Annika Boras), to wed Orgilus (Jacob Fishel). Instead, she’s hitched to Bassanes (Andrew Weems), a much-older suitor so jealous, he makes Othello look temperate. Meanwhile, Orgilus disguises himself as a broke young scholar, so he can hang around and creepily supervise his own sister’s romantic progress while plotting gory revenge for his thwarted marriage.

One broken heart begets another, and soon Sparta is gripped by an epidemic of bad love. As Ford makes terribly clear, repressed bodily needs lead to horrific acts of body-hatred. When healthful love is thwarted, death and murder become the only possible consummations: Penthea, Ophelia-like, goes mad before starving herself to death. Turning metaphor into reality, Orgilus butchers Ithocles—literally breaking his heart. Two other characters are killed by their own hearts: Orgilus bleeds to death; another simply, stunningly expires of pure lovelorn melancholy. The play concludes with a necrophiliac wedding: a perverse culmination of death’s triumph over life.

Played on a tomb-like thrust stage made of black marble, Cartmell’s production evokes a stultifyingly morbid society in which patriarchal rules take precedence over young people’s desires. Protocol is everything: Characters genuflect before the powerful and keep close watch on the powerless. In this marmoreal world, even the spilled blood is colorless—its population is pithed of life long before its citizens die.

The ensemble is uniformly fine, speaking Ford’s blunt, choppy verse with bell-like clarity. (Fishel’s nervy, raging Orgilus, Boras’s disintegrating Penthea, and Weems’s fuming Bassanes deserve special mention.)

Cartmell is obviously a classical director to watch: Her compositions for the three-sided space are crisp, clean, and mobile; she deftly manages the play’s serpentine complications with sharp expositional staging. Some of her images are unforgettably apt: Bassanes slurps oysters while spewing misogynistic vitriol; in death, Penthea is arranged into the pose of a virgin goddess. Let’s hope Cartmell turns her attention to John Webster next. The White Devil, anyone?