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A CurtainUp Review
A Simple Heart
By Elyse Sommer
Gustave Flaubert's novella is best summarized the author's own words:
" A Simple Heart is just the account of an obscure life, that of Félicité a poor country girl, pious but mystical, quietly devoted, and as tender as fresh bread. She loves successively a man, her mistress, her mistress' children, a nephew, an old man she is taking care of, then her parrot. When the parrot dies she has him stuffed, and when she herself is dying, she confuses the parrot with the Holy Ghost. It's not at all ironic, as you suppose, but on the contrary, very serious and very sad. I want to arouse people's pity, to make sensitive souls weep, since I am one myself."
Literature teachers often assign the story along with Flaubert's most famous work, Madame Bovary. (see link) It would be a stretch as a "regular" play unless paired with another short piece or its characters integrated into another work as in Julian Barnes clever puzzler, Flaubert's Parrot. (See link). As re-imagined by choreographer Annie-B Parson it is a fascinating theater dance piece. Except for one brief scene and some mumbled words, there is no dialogue though there are words -- brief captions excerpted from the story and projected onto the stage rear panel to introduce each new phase in Félicité's life.
Even if you haven't read the story or arrived in time to read the extensive program notes in the Classic Stage's Spring newsletter (highly recommended), you'll have no trouble understanding what is happening on the stage. Ms. Parson who also directs uses five gifted dancers, four from her Big Dance Theater company, to visually guide us towards that threshold of feeling Flaubert wanted to stir in his readers. Félicité is cast in duplicate with two dancers, Stacy Dawson and Molly Hickock, moving in such unison that they indeed seem like one. This duality also seems to underscore the hardness and sadness of this woman's life -- as if only two sets of hands and feet could push through its difficulties. The first scene showing those two dancers emerging from beneath the voluminous skirt of their mistress (Tymberle Canale), hands working like feet and feet like hands , makes for a stunning visual and metaphorical image.
Cynthia Hopkins is completely believable as the child Virginie, as David Neumann as a suitor, a deliciously Chaplinesque peddler and a guest. The CSC's wide stage has been transformed into a shimmering metal surface, with colorful bird cages suspended overhead and just a few simple and well-used props. I was so impressed with the musical accompaniment that I ordered a CD of the work of the composer whose work is the main source, Henryk Gorecki.
Flaubert's friend George Sand urged him to "write something more down to earth that everybody can enjoy." Had she lived to read it, she would have been pleased with her friend's story. I think she would also appreciate Ms. Parson's fidelity to that simplicity in her combination of folk dance with elements of modern and ballet.
Finally, a consumer caveat: Don't expect a full evening's entertainment in a real time sense. While 45-minutes is considered long for a dance piece, if A Simple Heart were done at a venue like the Joyce Theater, it would be paired with at least one other short piece. As "regular" theater it competes with Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes for this season's shortest theatrical evening though tickets to Heart are about half the price).
The novella from which Parsons and Lazur adapted their dance piece is available in paperback with two other tales. You may also want to read or reread his most famous novel and as a fun postcritp, Julian Barnes clever puzzle of a novel about a man obsessed by Flaubert's characters -- both perenially popular "good reads" and also available as paperbacks:
Three Tales: Simple Heart/Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator/Herodias
Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes
London Sinfonietta's recording of composer Gorecki's best known work, Symphony no 3, conducted by Zinman and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw