Gustave Flaubert’s speciality was presenting small subjects in ironic, often ambiguous terms. His 1877 short story “A Simple Heart,” about a pious servant girl entirely devoted to the family she serves, suggests that we both admire her faith and question her sanity. The dance-theater version of the work by New York-based Big Dance Theater deftly does the same, presenting images whose narrative import is clear but whose emotional meaning is slippery. Choreographer Annie-B Parson and codirector Paul Lazar have set their hour-long A Simple Heart in an almost claustrophobic domestic world occupied primarily by women: the mistress, Madame Aubain; her sickly daughter; and two women in the role of the servant, Felicité. The opening establishes both the choreographer’s method and the ironclad hierarchy of the household: Madame Aubain is seated with her long skirt flowing around her when suddenly one hand, then another, appears from beneath her skirt and clasps hers. Though the mistress gives no other indication that she’s aware of the beings hidden in her clothes, her desperate grasp of their hands shows how crucial they are to her. Meanwhile the daughter, looking like a tumbled pile of clothing, lies in a cradle that’s way too small for her. When the daughter kisses the hem of her mother’s skirt, the mother covers her with it and sits on her. But the apparent conventional power structure of the opening is not the real one: when the twin Felicités gleefully swing the girl in their arms and rock her in her cradle, we’d much rather be the lively, loving servant girl than the mama. Set to a score that incorporates music by Henryk Gorecki and Glen Branca, A Simple Heart promises to be anything but simple. Museum of Contemporary Art, theater, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010. Through April 22: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 4 PM. $18, $15 for MCA members. Note: There will be a workshop for choreographers, actors, and directors with Parson Thursday, April 19, from 6 to 8 PM; $12-$15. Advance registration required by calling 312-397-4010. And on Sunday, April 22, at 2 PM Parson and Lazar will lead a discussion about creating dance theater from literary works. Free; call 312-397-4010 for reservations.

–Laura Molzahn