Up close and impersonal 

Big picture dwarfs PushPush's Heartbreak

You don't need the Buggles to sing "Video Killed the Theater Star" to recognize the threat television and film represent to live theater. Playhouses fight a losing battle to retain their audiences as new media siphon off public attention.

PushPush Theater's world premiere of Heartbreak acts as an accomplice to its own marginalization by emphasizing elaborate video effects that overshadow the production. You watch Heartbreak, by Atlanta's Rob Nixon, wishing you could see a straight-up play without the high-tech frills: There's a compelling drama in there somewhere.

Set on Florida's panhandle, Heartbreak begins with a middle-aged couple, Donna (Claire Bronson) and Samuel (Dikran Utijdian), having a testy conversation about their marital frustrations. With dialogue that implies more than it spells out, the duo could be a pair of loveless marrieds from an Edward Albee play.

But it's nearly impossible to focus on their tensions given the live, rear-projected video image, the size of a small movie screen, that dominates the performance space. Cameras throw before us the actors' faces in huge, unflattering close-ups. The performers deliberately show their awareness of the cameras and frequently present themselves in self-conscious, stagey two-shots - especially Donna, who's obsessed with maintaining appearances.

Over the course of the evening, Donna and Samuel host several visitors, including free-spirited Moon (Anessa Ramsey), who's trying to duck her involvement in a local real estate scandal. In her wake is film student Daniel (filmmaker Dave Bruckner), who's picked Moon as a documentary subject and follows the young woman around with a hand-held camera (pictures from which we often see on the big screen).

Nixon, founder of PushPush's ongoing film/theater collaboration Dailies, invites the video gimmickry by returning to themes involving individuals and different kinds of images. Daniel stalks Moon with his camera, trying to perceive her "true self" through his lens. Samuel recounts a tale from Florida's early days about a cameraman rumored to steal people's souls. Samuel shows Daniel his collection of antique photographs (presented like a slide show), and together they invent stories about the people in them, as if parts of their souls remain.

Heartbreak's characters frequently play-act, as if they're being viewed by a real or imagined audience. They behave less according to what they want to do and more according to the dictates of their conscience, or what people will think of them. For instance, when Donna makes a pass at Moon's ex-hippie father, Sandburg (Scott Poythress), he makes anxious, irritated glances at the camera rather than return her kiss.

The photographic imagery provides a versatile metaphor, but for whom, exactly? It's so complicated and overwhelming that we can barely perceive the characters' relationships to each other, which seriously undermines the play's punch. In the kissing scene, we can't really sort out what Donna means to Sandburg, and vice versa. The performers also seem put off by the presence of the cameras, as if uncertain whether to acknowledge or ignore them from scene to scene.

The most memorable moments - presented solely on prerecorded video - show Bernard Clarke as Buddy, a crooked real estate developer (and Moon's ex-boyfriend) who delivers speeches that are part legal defense, part internal monologue. As he justifies his actions, water gradually rises around him, getting closer to the level of his mouth. Buddy evokes the kind of sleazy Floridian more often found in Carl Hiassen novels than stage plays, with the head-above-water device conveying both his shoddy building practices and the notion of drowning in a public scandal. More often, though, the conspicuous camerawork diminishes Heartbreak. You can credit Nixon and PushPush's "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach in combining video techniques with live theater, but the tantalizing technology short-circuits the soul of Nixon's play and provides the biggest heartbreak of all.



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