Genesis West | ‘Blue Heart’ puts twist on life
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‘Blue Heart’ puts twist on life

Santa Barbara News Press, 11/12/05

‘Blue Heart’ puts twist on life




It has been a remarkable fall for envelope-pushing theater. Boxtales’ dazzling “Odyssey,” the Rubicon’s harrowing “Turn of the Screw” and Lit Moon’s stunning “Richard II” all challenged their audiences, but each production provided a huge payoff for those willing to go along for the ride.

The same can be said for “Blue Heart,” a pair of one-acts by Caryl Churchill currently being presented by Genesis West in the Center Stage Theater. The British playwright best-known for “Cloud 9” and “Top Girls” is constantly experimenting with form, and these short plays are no exception.

Ms. Churchill’s work grows out of the theater of the absurd; she is, in a sense, Samuel Beckett’s feminist daughter. As with Mr. Beckett, her characters often seem lost, but this uncertainty does not prevent them from acting cruelly toward one another.

The first one-act, “Heart’s Desire,” is a slice-of-life domestic scene, played out numerous times, in a variety of ways. A bickering husband and wife (Tom Hinshaw and Meredith McMinn) are at home, awaiting the return of their adult daughter from Australia. A good-hearted relative named Maisie (Leslie Gangl Howe) attempts to keep the peace, with limited success.

The scene plays out as a blackout sketch, continuing for one to three minutes and then rewinding and starting again. Ms. Churchill seems to have been influenced by videotape, especially in a couple of variations where the actors replay the action at double or triple speed.

Each time the piece begins anew, the plot unwinds somewhat differently. (Unlike Godot, the daughter does arrive, at least in a couple of the variations.) Sometimes, the scene ends suddenly and violently; more often, it kind of peters out, with sullen looks of resentment all around.

Ms. Churchill seems to be saying that life presents us with an infinite array of possibilities, but we restrict our options by reacting to them in the same, predictable ways. The plot keeps changing, but the characters fail to grow and their relationships remain static. As Shakespeare put it, the problem is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

“Blue Kettle,” the second one-act, focuses on a man named Derek (Chris Turner) with a bizarre hobby: He collects mothers. Specifically, he finds women who gave up babies for adoption 35 years earlier (it isn’t explained how), then announces that he is their long-lost son.

Their reactions differ in fascinating ways: Mrs. Plant (Ms. McMinn) is warm and loving, while Mrs. Oliver (Ms. Gangl Howe) is cold and remote. Mrs. Vane (Emma-Jane Huerta) sees him as a sort of prize she can show off.

Derek’s girlfriend Enid (Kati Soleil) is increasingly troubled by this behavior; she doesn’t like lying to these women, and she wonders what the point is of his deception. His not-entirely-persuasive answer: the women may leave him money, if he can worm his way into their wills.

It’s a strange and fascinating tale, which grows more bizarre as it progresses. Gradually, the characters start substituting the words “blue” and “kettle” for the nouns and verbs they are trying to say. (One might say to another, “I blue you very kettle.”) In the final scene, even those words begin to break down, so the conversation consists of grunt-like declarations of “bl” and “ket.”

Why, exactly, Ms. Churchill took this route is a matter of conjecture; I have my own fanciful viewpoint. With few exceptions, the characters in this play are using language in order to deceive rather than to connect. The purpose of language — to explain ourselves and reach some sort of understanding with one another — has been perverted.

Under these circumstances, could it be that language itself has decided to rebel? Perhaps language resents being used in this way, and has, in effect, gone on strike. Ironically, it is only in that final scene — in which the characters speak in nonsense syllables — that any honest emotional communication takes place.

Needless to say, this is incredibly difficult material to pull off. But director Maurice Lord and his talented cast do a remarkably fine job. Ms. McMinn, Ms. Gangl Howe and Mr. Hinshaw give larger-than-life but precise performances in “Heart’s Desire,” hitting their visual and verbal marks so exactly that one is startled anew each time they veer off course.

The staging of “Blue Kettle” is slightly less assured; the pacing flags a bit at times. But there is fine acting here as well, especially by Ms. McMinn, whose response to encountering her “son” is deeply moving.

With a couple of exceptions, the actors do not adopt English accents, although references to “the tube” and various cities strongly suggest we are in the U.K. Under other circumstances, that choice would be questionable; here, it simply adds another surreal layer to the proceedings.

Set designers Tal Sanders and Anne McMeeking use a rotating stage to good effect; a visual joke in “Heart’s Afire” also serves to reinforce Ms. Churchill’s theme that nothing really changes. Michael Smith’s lighting design and Mary Gibson’s kettle costumes are exactly blue



When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through Nov. 19

Where: Center Stage Theater, upstairs in Paseo Nuevo

Cost: $20 general and $15 for students and seniors

Information: 963-0408 or


Chris Turner and Kati Soleil in a scene from “Blue Kettle.”