By Darcy Heller Sternberg; Directed by Madeline Brennan
Part of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.30.15
VENUE #3: Teatro LATEA at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street
by Audrey Moyce on 8.25.15
Hearts Afire. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
BOTTOM LINE: Resembling a docu-drama, five college students talk about the difficulties they had getting there.
Walking into Hearts Afire, the simple set of a large muslin screen behind three chairs caught my eye. The set proves not so simple: one character’s memories are illuminated by a pantomime that the other actors create behind it. These sometimes striking tableaus illuminate the character's mind as a mother or friend speaks in voiceover, and brings the past to bear on the stories being told in the present.
The show is about five students waiting in an ID distribution line at New York’s own Borough of Manhattan Community College. At the top of the piece, the office shuts down inexplicably, and they are left waiting in line with nothing to do. This leads each character into alternating monologues about what brought them to pursue their education, and the difficulties they've encountered on the road to getting there. The incidental group consists of Katherine, a former soldier in Afghanistan in a wheelchair who's "older than all these kids"; James, a young man who promised his dad he'd go to college and not end up selling drugs like him; Raja, whose parents owned a restaurant in India before they moved here; Ming, whose thick Chinese accent haunted her all through elementary school; and Sofia, whose effort to cope with the problems of being a teenager led her down a road of hard drugs, abuse, and early pregnancy.
The way that these stories unfold—in monologue form, never dialogue—feels choppy and disconnected. Most of the time, there is no indication as to why each of the students would venture to tell such personal and often traumatic stories to us, or to each other—literal strangers in a high-stakes peer group of future classmates. In addition, Hearts Afire’s synopsis tells us that this play “defies the American mainstream perception of college life,” and writer Darcy Heller Sternberg reportedly culled these stories from her own students at BMCC. There's something interesting about giving rise to marginalized voices by placing them in this play. While a valuable perspective and topic worthy of putting on stage, I wondered if the re-appropriation was actually successful.
(Hearts Afire plays at VENUE #3: Teatro LATEA at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, through August 30, 2015. Performances are Fri 8/21 at 7; Sun 8/23 at 4:45; Tue 8/25 at 4:45; Fri 8/28 at 7; and Sun 8/30 at noon. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit heartsafiretheplay.weebly.com.)