Presented by Theatre on Fire
By Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by Maureen Shea
Review by Gillian Daniels
WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE.
One of the most terrifying things about the circumstances of Dijana (Elizabeth Milanovich) is how convinced she is that she’s in control of them. Theatre on Fire gives us a chilling story of a woman clinging to her mental well-being by playing a cheerful, even humorous Pollyanna in an unwilling career as a prostitute. The American premiere of the show gets under one’s skin and stays there, emotionally and sometimes physically moving the audience further into Dijana’s claustrophobic, darkly comic misery.
It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now is a powerful and intimate show about a woman trafficked from Eastern Europe to London in the sex trade. British playwright Lucy Kirkwood is unflinching. Dijana sorts through used condoms in a trashcan, rhapsodizes on the L’Oreal shampoo she’s acquired (because she’s “worth it”), and confides her secrets to the audience with warmth and sincerity. I’m not sure the play would work half as well if Milanovich didn’t turn in such a joyful performance. Dijana’s enthusiasms may be slim—Billie Piper and ice cream—but they’re all she has.
Without her vibrancy, It Felt Empty becomes pretty grim pretty quickly. It’s hard to call it a “melodrama” as the story is based on the ongoing circumstances of real women. Truth is stranger and often grimmer than fiction and this can be a tough watch, especially when Dijana’s monologues appear to have no end and her mental stability is called into question.
Director Maureen Shea and Theatre on Fire has wrapped that darkness in a shiny veneer of quirk and charm, however. This is partially due to how Shea and Mirta Tocci make creative use of Charlestown Working Theater’s set-up. While the show becomes less accessible to those who are walking impaired, it does become an excellent metaphor for the labyrinth of Dijana’s isolation.
The sole other actor in the play is the skilled Obehi Janice as Gloria. Her and Dijana’s tenuous connection plays out in a women’s holding facility. It underscores just how insular our main character’s existence has become. Her circumstances would not be half so bleak if she had more connections to a community willing to help her. Instead, Dijana turns the audience into her community as she monologues, anchoring herself as she anchors us in her story.