Tuesday, December 11, 2012

REVIEW: Hearts Like Fists

Flux Theatre Ensemble
at the Secret Theater

November 30 - December 15
Tues - Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 7pm

What's a heart? Fortitude? Love? Arteries to choke with donuts? In the new play Hearts Like Fists running at the Secret Theater through the 15th, all of the above.

If that's a schmaltzy intro, then I have to apologize -- I don't have playwright Adam Szymkowicz' ability to tightly wind sap around action and produce a surprisingly hilarious, kinetic production that meditates on the subject of fear, bravery, and love in between.

In the world Flux Theatre Ensemble has deftly woven, Doctor X (Gus Schulenberg) - a mad, jealous evil genius - is on the loose. He's slaughtering young lovers as they sleep, stopping their hearts as they lay vulnerable. The only thing standing between him and a terrorized city is an undercover crime-fighting organization called, aptly, the Crime Fighters. Meanwhile, Lisa (Marnie Schulenberg) is a head-turning young lady falling in love with a young doctor, Peter (Chinaza Uche), who is in process of creating an artificial heart. When Lisa collides with Doctor X and is drafted into the Crime Fighters, she -- and everyone around her -- need to decide exactly strong their hearts are.

If the play -- which features monologues and conversations about what love is like and how it feels to be in it -- seems like it's headed for sap-town, it very well could be, if it wasn't for three things: the strong crafting by both Adam's script, the energetic direction by Kelly O'Donnell, and most especially by the invested, deeply felt performances by the ensemble.

One of the finest example is Chinaza Uche's Peter. I commented in my review of Obskene on how the sometimes ridiculous news stories in that plot were salvaged by performers who imbued them with every bit of passion and seriousness, without forcing or pushing. In Obskene, Uche vividly rendered how extremely hot it is in the fake news stories -- and it carried the imagery into being new and unexpected.

Here, Uche brings that vivid, earnest performance to a young man afraid to pursue the love he truly feels, worried of his own weak heart. A worse playwright would give Uche weaker, less interesting material to work with -- but even with Adam's sharply written and intelligent writing, without Uche's powerful performance, we would be tempted to dismiss it as just another waffling young man.

Gus Schulenberg's Doctor X is in a similar boat. As the stock mad scientist, he could be consigned to a witty version of the trope crowded with figures from Doctor Robotnik to Doctor Evil to Doctor Horrible (and a thousand cheap imitations in between). But with Schulenberg's invested performance, Doctor X slides seamlessly and honestly between mad murderer, young lover, and sad wanderer.

Connecting to these characters allows Szymkowicz' script to hit very open, naive notes without ringing false. It lulls us into being open to hear those monologues about what it feels like to be in love, and how scared we are by it. Because what Szymkowicz is saying is definitely true, and new -- but without the care taken, we wouldn't be ready to hear it.

Of course, this is only half love story. The incredible fight choreography by Adam Swiderski and Rocio Alexis Mendez keeps the action flowing, and the script have plenty of punchy one liners and understated comedy.

The ensemble, Jennifer Somers Kipley, and Chester Poon, are also worthy of a stand-out call. I have a pet peeve about walk-on characters that have just one line to say -- it's impossible for me to ignore the time and effort that every member of the cast puts into a show, even for the smallest part. Luckily, the ensemble here is used well -- from the pre-show, where Poon sets the stage with fight choreography, and through the rest of the production. There aren't a lot of times where ensemble gets their own round of applause during a scene change, but this ensemble earns it.

Go see it. Because you need to be laugh really hard. Because you need to connect with well-fleshed, three-dimensional characters. Because, as Hearts Like Fists puts it: "The world is dangerous. Love is scarse. Crime is prevalent."