The Cartesian Heart | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Cartesian Heart 

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THE CARTESIAN HEART, Breadline Theatre Group, at Center Theater Ensemble. In this generous, ambitious ensemble effort (based on a script by director Michael Oswalt), the Breadliners artfully update three fantastic E.T.A. Hoffmann tales immortalized by Jacques Offenbach in his 1881 masterwork Les contes d'Hoffmann.

The setting is an urban coffeehouse where Nicklausse (Hoffmann's faithful companion and muse) regrets the loss of her lesbian lover. There she meets a modern Hoffmann and is soon drawn into his cautionary tales of love lost to obsession, performed by patrons of the cafe. Hoffmann recounts his self-deluded obsession with three women, each of whom also resembles Nicklausse's ex-lover: the mechanical doll Olympia, the singer Antonia, and the shadow-stealing courtesan Jeux. Hoffmann's defeats inspire Nicklausse to learn from her lesser loss and persist in hope.

Aimless conversations occasionally derail the story, Nicklausse's overwrought musings recall a bad poetry slam, and the musical mix of pop ballads and Offenbach opera is uneasy. But overall Breadline's adaptation warmly preserves the mystery and poignancy of Hoffmann's romantic tales. The urgent, hallucinatory stories require only honest acting to claim our attention. Lisel M. Gorell as the wounded Nicklausse, Paul Kampf's reticent Hoffmann, and Jessica Raab as the four lost lovers effectively fuel the action through sheer contrast. Five other actors gamely provide the coffeehouse and fictional foils to the main characters in this intriguing look at the deceptions of desire. --Lawrence Bommer

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