Northlight Theatre

You can’t disguise the conventional by slapping a couple of puppets on top of it. Martha Boesing’s My Other Heart, directed by Russell Vandenbroucke at Northlight, is a sturdily correct, by-the-numbers sort of play that peeks out rather shamefacedly from behind forced pageantry, shadow play, and badly integrated puppetry.

Which is too bad, because aside from its conventionality and an occasional hint of smugness, the play isn’t so hard to swallow. Set in Spain in 1494, it focuses on the moving if predictable friendship that grows between Pilar and Cara, the Indian woman Pilar’s husband brought back from the New World as a slave. It’s clear from the first that Pilar, and Cara have a lot in common, including Pilar’s charming pig of a husband, a navigator on one of Columbus’s ships. So we don’t go along with Pilar on her journey of discovery; we sit back and wait for the inevitable. Yet Boesing’s script is occasionally lyrical, and the performances of Shanesia Davis and Jenna Ward are solid enough to hold our interest.

Boesing also introduces some interesting parallels between the two women’s beliefs–both are outsiders in the eyes of the church, no small problem in the days of the Inquisition. Pilar is presumably a converted Jew, but when she’s alone she ignores the crucifix that hangs center stage and covers her head, drawing comfort from her true religion. Yet it’s up to her to convert the “savage” Cara to the ways of the church. This is a struggle worth exploring, but Pilar’s duty to convert Cara is mentioned once or twice and then dropped. Perhaps there would be more time for it if the 16-member chorus of “townspeople” in this production didn’t shuffle in and out in awkward, often embarrassing attempts to create a sense of spectacle. When an auto-da-fe parade passes below Pilar’s window the action onstage comes to a halt, and we watch uncomfortably as actors portraying hollow-eyed churchmen and flagellants roam the aisles of the theater.

Also irksome are the puppets Pilar frequently converses with. Early on we see her carrying on a dialogue with a phantom Columbus, whom she blames for carrying her husband away. Columbus is played with fanatical flair by Michael Guido, but he’s occasionally replaced by uninspiring Columbus puppets. Guido is far more entertaining than the puppets, but since he’s presented as little more than a villain (is anyone else tired of hearing about what a bastard Columbus was?) he wears thin by the second act.

As do this play’s good intentions. The friendship of the two women and Pilar’s growing realization that she herself is a slave are overwhelmed not only by the histrionics but by the meditations on the brutality of Columbus’s men, the hypocrisy of the church, and the nobility of the “savages.” “I don’t think I know what freedom is, do you?” Pilar asks Cara late in the play, then answers her own question. “Yes, I think you do. And that is why you frighten me so.” One can’t help feeling she’s speaking for the sole benefit of any idiots in the audience.

To Boesing’s credit, she does give us a real human being–with an ugly side to balance his charm–in Anton, Pilar’s husband, played with great relish by Bruce Orendorf. He seems to be a good guy who turns into a brute only when he’s crossed; it’s no surprise that he’s ultimately a coward, but he does have a real rapport with his wife. Buried beneath 16 superfluous actors, some sermonizing, puppets, and melodrama is a solid little play about such relationships.