What If? Productions' founder Kyle Barnette has sworn me to secrecy. The company's season three opener, Hearts Full of Blood, has a rather shocking plot twist that he says must, under all circumstance, stay under wraps.
Written by James Asmus, Hearts Full of Blood is another original play from Chicago's New Colony, the company that also gave us last season's Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. The playwright, who writes comics for Marvel in Los Angeles, was inspired by a disturbingly true story.
The darkly tragic comedy centers around a picture-perfect couple — played by Barnette and Beth Curley — who are working to conceive their first child. They're joined by a poorly matched couple of friends. According to Barnette, the first half of the play is reminiscent of a sitcom like Happy Endings or How I Met Your Mother. "There's that kind of rat-a-tat-tat familiarity among friends vibe at the beginning," he says. "You get really into these four characters and you know who they are, they're friends that you drink with, friends that you cuss with and talk about sex with."
And then things get interesting. "I've never seen a show just completely shift the way this script does," Barnette says. "It's very sitcomy at the beginning of the show. You're really engaged in these characters, and they're talking dirty and picking on each other and then all the sudden ... you find out what's really going on and you forget about everything that you just saw."
Asmus says that audiences have had a visceral reaction to the show. "The Chicago cast always reported lots of gasps, sudden horrified shouts, or even sudden sobbing," he says. "I don't think I've ever actually heard so many people crying before as I did at the end of Act I. As the writer, I felt weirdly proud and guilty at the same time."
Asmus is taking a break from playwriting while working for Marvel — he's currently developing a new Gambit series starring the Cajun thief from X-Men as well as an ongoing heist series called Thief of Thieves with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. He's also working on various TV and film projects in L.A. Still, he says he's delighted that What If? has chosen to produce his play. "From my experience, only passionate and committed theater companies do newer works like this," he says. "Getting folks to the theater is hard. Most companies purely produce works that are already famous just to help bring in audiences. I'm not saying other companies aren't passionate. But any group seeking out new voices and challenges rather than just picking from Broadway of years' past has a true passion for theater. And I consider myself lucky to have that applied to my work."
The play joins What If? productions like Five Lesbians, The House of Yes, and Durang, Durang, and Durang that have broken boundaries in the local theater scene. It's one of the main missions of the company, which is focused on casting serious local actors in unique, mostly original productions. "We've really tried to pick shows that are good for actors, that people want to perform," Barnette says.
Also unique, Barnette says the four-person cast — which includes Darryl LaPlante and Tara Denton — decided to take a collaborative approach to directing the play. They workshop scenes together and everyone offers feedback. "It's not something we'd do every time, but for this particular show it works really well," Barnette says. The play represents a return to the stage for Barnette, who typically stays behind the scenes directing What If? shows.
The season continues in January with Little Shop of Horrors followed by Dark Matters in April, The Practice Child in July, and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris in September. Barnette says they hope to perform Hearts Full of Blood again during Piccolo Spoleto next summer.
"It's a very roller coaster kind of season," Barnette says. "We want to get people to want to work with us who really enjoy being on stage. We want to cultivate talent and really take advantage of what we have here in Charleston."