Theatre On Fire’s ‘It Felt Empty’ A Moving Experience (4.5 Stars)

‘It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now’ – Written by Lucy Kirkwood; Directed by Dr. Maureen Shea; Scenic/Installation and Costume Design by Mirta Tocci; Lighting by Chris Bocchiaro. Presented by Theatre on Fire at Charlestown Working Theater at 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown MA on Fridays and Saturdays through November 1.

‘It Felt Empty’ When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now’ does something in theater that you don’t often see – it moves the audience. Yes, it moves us because the storyline is that of an accidental prostitute portrayed brilliantly by Elizabeth Milanovich, but this production also physically moves the audience from one room/floor to another in the renovated Victorian firehouse with promenade staging as the three-act story unfolds.

‘It Felt Empty’ is primarily a one-woman drama. Elizabeth Milanovich, a recent graduate from Emerson College, breaks the fourth wall to perform Dijana Polancec’s heart-wrenching personal narrative.

Dijana is an Eastern European young woman who is forced into prostitution in London. Whether or not Milanovich’s accent is genuine or merely sustained for the entire length of the almost two hour production without intermission (more kudos to her if that is the case), the sense of isolation feels even more creepy as the scene opens in a small room where she has just serviced 21 consecutive men, which she keeps careful track of in her account book, by counting used condoms. Twenty-two-year-old Dijana is perky and optimistic about meeting her final customer because she believes she will now be able to “buy” back her passport, and with it, her freedom. Anyone in the audience who knows about sex trafficking is aware that once captured, there is no way out, but Dijana does not know this – or maybe she does at some level? She paces in bare feet and her toes curl as she speaks, she smokes cigarettes, and tap, tap, taps her fingers, hinting at underlying anxiety. Therein lies our observation of her psychological descent into madness.

Slowly, the effects of captivity reveal themselves. Dijana has created a world of her own and is sharing it with us, her imaginary TV audience, or at other times, with her beloved “little clown”. At times, we are so enmeshed that it is hard to know the difference between what really happened to her and the coping mechanisms she has created for survival. We begin to believe her story and personal web of deception. And that is the point. She is charming and funny and would make a great girl friend. But she also has created a world where you can’t be sure whether or not her tales of family and experience are true or merely the fabric of her imagination designed to bring hope to a situation where each day would have none otherwise.

For the second act, the well-choreographed movement of the 30 or so patrons breaks up the time sitting in wooden chairs to move upstairs. If you have difficulty ascending and descending stairs, they have a closed circuit T.V. of the scene on the first level. This transition gives the audience a chance to feel like they are part of the drama. Sitting or standing in the new space (a claustrophobic, cold room) with the main character feels like being a voyeur into the intimate life of this young woman. She continues to weave a net, attempting to deceive herself and someone she meets, Gloria, about her circumstances. Obehi Janice, recently named Boston’s Best Actress by Improper Bostonian, is the only other cast member to appear. Her character, also a foreigner, tries to be Dijana’s friend, but the interaction, and the entire scene, show how far Dijana’s madness has gone. The use of lighting in an actual room, and not a stage set, emphasizes her anxiety, emotionally bonding us with her insurmountable fear of the dark and loss of ability to trust.

If you want to really be part of the play, I suggest bringing a box of Tic Tacs and sharing them before the third act while waiting in the foyer. It will fit in with the show, relieve the tension, and create camaraderie with fellow theatre-goers. Once back in the theatre with its newly arranged space, take a moment to think about whether the scene takes place before or after what you’ve seen up until now. Hmmmm.

‘It Felt Empty’ has obvious adult themes and language. If you seek gender parity on American stages and look for female writers and stories about women, this is an important production. It gives voice to women who are trapped in an unthinkable circumstance. You can also see it for Milanovich’s extraordinary talent in this psychological thriller. The drama might even be called horror, perfect for Halloween, only it is sadly true to a real life menace facing women around the world – sex trafficking. For more info, go to: