Review: Inked Heart (FireWorks Festival / Alumnae Theatre Company)

D.J. Sylvis’ Inked Heart is more than skin deep, looking at tattooing, human nature, family on Toronto stages

Are tattoos simply ink embedded in skin, or do they represent something more? Are they art? Symbols of rites of passage? Coping mechanisms that help people celebrate milestones in one’s life or deal with our difficulties?

These are some of questions that playwright D.J. Sylvis addresses with Inked Heart. The play is currently onstage at the Alumnae Theatre Studio in Toronto as part of the FireWorks Festival.

Inked Heart also explores human nature, dealing with subject matters such as divorce, assault, the challenges of being successful, what it means to be part of a “family” and more.

The play got under my skin right away, with a monologue by Bette (Liz Wigderson) describing how it feels to get a tattoo. I don’t have any tattoos myself, but Wigderson brings Sylvis’ words to life, and I could feel or at least understand the pain and emotions that one goes through during the process of having body art added to their being.

Inked Heart mostly takes place within a tattoo parlour. The set is simple yet effective. There is minimal lighting and sound effects, and just enough of a set to take us inside the shop. All the actors get a chance to shine and bring Sylvis’ words to life. With lots of room for our imaginations to take root and grow, this is the type of theatre that I truly enjoy!

Tattoo artist and parlour owner Ed is played by Zachary McKendrick, and, while I didn’t much care for the character, McKendrick gave Ed authenticity. He made Ed real, and I didn’t so much as see an actor on stage as I did a clone of a colleague I don’t care for.

Amanda McKnight plays Josie, Ed’s young apprentice and employee. I thought McKnight was too brash and over the top at first, but she really won me over as Inked Heart developed. Josie is a strong, independent, post-feminist woman, an individual quite capable of taking care of herself. While Ed reminded me of a co-worker, the firebrand Josie reminded me of a young version of my wife.

With the minimal set and emphasis on plot, it’s tough to go into much detail without being a spoiler. However, I felt like I was in that tattoo parlour. The first act really flew by for me and seemed like 10 minutes instead of 45. The writing was tight and original, all of the acting top-notch.

The second act begins with a monologue delivered by Ed, which will pull you right back into the play. There are more surprises onstage, more bonding, but some plot developments are predictable. That being said, I could relate to all of the characters before the end of the play. In my mind, I had developed a relationship with all of them, and it was MY extended family onstage.

With a little tightening, Inked Heart could be my favourite play of this year. For example, the groundwork of who Ed would tattoo live at his gallery showing was established in the first act. Hinting at it two or three times in the second act made it less powerful for me. I think it might have been much more powerful with more of an emphasis on non-verbal communication. That way it might have more people talking about it after the show. One person might say “I didn’t see that coming at all!” and another “I did, because A, B, C. The way Ed looked at her in the first act and spoke to her…”

Again, not to be a spoiler, but the third monologue will blow your mind. Thanks for the aftercare, Josie!

The Alumnae Theatre is a friendly, comfortable environment that always seems to stage worthwhile plays, and Inked Heart is just the latest example. Be sure to check out this play and the rest of the FireWorks Festival if you get the chance.

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Photo of Liz Wigderson and Zachary McKendrick by Bruce Peters.