by Edward Medina
While watching the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival production of Heloise one could imagine what it was like watching a first draft workshop rehearsal of The Lion in Winter. You could tell there was a great deal of possibility and promise to be explored and discovered but the work, at that moment, was just shy of being monumental. Written by literary scholar and NYU philosophy professor Michael Shenefelt, and directed by the award-winning Ezra Barnes, this production of Heloise has historical heft but it lacks the fine brush strokes and vivid wordplay that finesse the weight of history into entertaining and captivating drama.
The true story of the brilliantly gifted Heloise and her philosopher lover Peter Abelard is one of the great tragic love stories of all time. In fact, some say it is the basis of other great literary love stories like Romeo and Juliet. This telling is mined from the letters sent between the doomed lovers. Heloise is a smart and curious woman gifted with a natural intellect. Her uncle decides to make sure she receives a proper ordained education to develop her mental acuities enough to make her learned but not enough to make her troublesome. He enlists Abelard, at the time the leading philosopher of twelfth century France, in his cause.
Abelard is an ambitious sort and his writings and teachings soon prove to be a threat to the conservative leadership of the Catholic Church. His conflicts become the fodder of the intellectual and philosophical discussions between student and teacher. This of course begins to draw them closer together in mind, body, and soul. The two of them can’t help but to fall in love. Things become even more complicated when they secretly marry. The furious family and the powerful hierarchy vows revenge against the couple eventually separating them. They are both imprisoned. Heloise to a nunnery where she becomes its abbess. Abelard to a monastery where he lives out his days in silenced contemplation. They are only reunited in death as they are put to rest together in a cemetery in their beloved France.
The full ensemble cast does well with the material given them and director Barnes assuredly leads the company to the task at hand. Sophia Blum as Heloise is endearing and Sean Edward Evans as Abelard plays the tortured soul well. The issue here is that structurally too much of the focus is on him when the emphasis should be on Heloise as the title character. At a time when this classic story could and should be a powerful part of the empowered modern feminist conversation the script is almost obligated to deliver its vision through her eyes. Again, one could imagine how potent this story would be if the woman in question was our guide through this male centric world where reason and faith are in conflict and the great moral order of mother church presides.
Celebrating its third year with a roster of eighteen world premieres and three staged readings the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival prides itself in presenting original productions while providing up and coming playwrights with the opportunity of having their work professionally produced in an instructive and nurturing environment. This year they expanded their reach and gravitas by mounting these carefully selected pieces at New York’s legendary, and recently beautifully renovated, Theatre Row.
The selection committee was right to choose Heloise for inclusion in this important season. This is a play that earned its place and embodies the ideals of the festival. All those involved should be proud. Heloise was given a proper presentation and now deserves to go back to the drawing board, get tinkered with a bit, and when done, it should be presented once more. Heloise the women and her life story deserve that much and we in the here and now have much to learn from her.