The Debate Society: The Eaten Heart

eaten_heart.jpgIn our ultraconnected, seen-it-all modern world, it’s hard to imagine that magic (for lack of a better word to describe the strange, unknown, unexpected) is anywhere anymore, or that anyone might still want it. But watching The Debate Society’s terrific new play The Eaten Heart, one realizes with relief that yes, there is still the more mysterious, older kind of magic to be found and people do still seek it, though it’s hardly obvious or easy to recognize.

The Brooklyn-based troupe’s second installment in a promised trilogy of plays based on stories from Black Plague times (the first, The Snow Hen, premiered last February), The Eaten Heart springs from Boccaccio’s Decameron, though even people in the audience who are somewhat familiar with that early novel may initially have trouble recognizing the fragments from it that have been spun into the play. The Decameron is about ten men and women who retreat into the Tuscan countryside during the Plague in order to avoid contamination; there, over the course of ten days, they tell stories that are by turns bawdy, serious, hilarious, and sad. For The Eaten Heart, this setup has been deconstructed and reimagined into a mesmerizing web of people and events spanning one night in an anonymous 1970s motel. The characters that pass through are rooted in the stories that Boccaccio’s Florentines tell each other, some more firmly than others, but more important is the idea of them all escaping, in one way or another – though none so literally as the Decameron’s characters – the monotony of their normal, boring habits, companions, and locations: the search for something different, magical.

It’s somewhat difficult, not to mention beside the point, to try to summarize a “plot” in The Eaten Heart, but in order to ground some of these claims, imagine this: A woman enters her hotel room and gets ready for a shower, then sits in her towel smoking as her TV – unplugged – begins to flicker on and off. When she disappears into the bathroom, a man crawls onto stage from under the bed and begins to tell about a husband who dreams his hateful wife is attacked by wolves, and the dream comes true. This narrator disappears as the first woman emerges from the bathroom to let the motel’s silent handyman in to look at the TV that’s acting up; the action in that segment shifts to one side of the set while another begins centerstage. I could go on: interlocking pieces unfold in this way over the course of the show, which is performed by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who are also, not surprisingly given their evident feel for the material, its co-creators (Oliver Butler directs all this, which could easily have devolved into chaos, with a light but knowing touch.). But to continue listing each scrap of story would do the play a disservice, as a fair portion of the entertainment in it comes from watching the pieces cascade out and fit together.

What strikes one most during the performance, before the stories’ connections are clearer and while Decameron references and other deeper meanings are still sinking in, is the staging’s ingenuity, most particularly the fact that, as noted, all the characters are played by but two people. I admit to losing count as they whirled in and out and back in again, but would hazard a guess there were ten altogether, seven men and three women as in the Decameron; my head began to spin by the time Thureen makes it seem that he has become three different men involved in a brawl just offstage. The actors are greatly aided by Sydney Maresca’s terrific costumes and Amanda Rehbein’s clever set, but their inspired performances draw on an inner authority that makes one believe the change between characters even when a wig is off-kilter. They are telling and acting out stories, and the play builds up to the tragic end of a love triangle, but the content of the stories is really less important than the way Thureen and Bos so clearly show their characters searching, albeit sometimes unconsciously, for an element of magic, or at least a change, a breath of something new, in their lives.

And for all the sly intelligence of the use of the Decameron and the deeper meaning I’ve been reading into it, it must finally be said that – apart from a few moments that drag or seem willfully obscure – The Eaten Heart is fun to watch, thanks to the quicksilver charm of the actors and the way it presses forward, giddily rotating characters who seem somewhat goofy at first blush, not stopping for breath. By the end I was both satisfied and even ready to see it again, to catch everything missed before all the shining little pieces had been carefully doled out over its engaging course. - Mallory Jensen

The Eaten Heart runs through Saturday, June 9 at The Ontolotical-Hysteric Theater, St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th St. and Second Ave., New York City

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.