Near the end of the Theatre Company’s new short film The Broken Heart Spread, a woman named Serena (Lauren Modica) asks a tarot card reader named Delphine (DeLanna Studi) for advice on dating apps.
“Do I have to reply to all the messages?” she wonders. “Because this is starting to feel like a full-time job.”
In Serena’s voice, you hear the panic of a person adrift in a sea of possibilities, but Delphine meets her desperation with hypnotic calm. Her clients confront all manner of agonies—from a crisis of faith to angst about a gaping age difference in a relationship—but she almost always projects the soothing confidence of a woman who has placed her faith in a higher power.
The Broken Heart Spread—written by Claire Willett, directed by Brandon Woolley, and filmed at Northeast Portland metaphysical shop Psychic Sister—wants to share Delphine’s faith with the audience. Watching the film won’t teach you what all 78 cards in a tarot deck mean, but it will teach you that those cards have the power to illuminate and instruct.
Delphine is introduced to us in a dreamy prologue in which she declares, “Magic is hard fucking work.” That may be true, but in the film, the hardest work is Delphine’s struggle to place the emotional needs of her clients above her own. Her story invites you to meditate not only on the meaning of tarot cards, but on the mentors—whether they are parents, teachers, doctors or friends—who may fulfill a similarly selfless role in your life.
The Broken Heart Spread follows Delphine through a hectic day of virtual sessions with people like Sister Joan (Josie Seid), a nun tormented by her love for a woman. While we hear the voices of the characters seeking Delphine’s advice, they rarely speak and we never see their faces. That’s not a problem for Studi, who has perfected the art of speaking in a conversational manner that sometimes makes you forget that Delphine is the only person in the room.
Studi’s aura of assurance conveys Delphine’s conviction that her words are backed up by something more than human authority and her unmistakable cleverness. When she brings out baubles of wisdom like “It’s OK to want to have your needs met” and “Scared is normal,” you’re struck not only by the value of her words, but how good she is at sounding right.
Some of the best scenes in The Broken Heart Spread feature moments that pierce Delphine’s serenity, like her uncharacteristically plainspoken exchange with her cousin C.J. (Lindsey Bruno) about what sounds like a toxic relationship.
“Your insistence that the universe brought you together is on the border of delusion, and you seem unable to distinguish between divine intervention and white privilege!” Delphine exclaims.
When Delphine is talking to C.J., she sounds like a concerned and exasperated cousin, not a guide at peace with the world and herself. It’s enough to make you wonder who she is without her ethereal demeanor—and how much her persona blurs the boundary between heartfelt belief and calculation.
That question matters because The Broken Heart Spread comes uncomfortably close to being a commercial for tarot cards. While there’s nothing problematic about the film’s assertion that tarot can be a positive force in a person’s life, there’s something troubling about its vague and unquestioning portrayal of Delphine’s profession.
Delphine never fully makes the case for tarot’s importance because no one in The Broken Heart Spread challenges it. All of her clients appear to be believers, which makes the film feel cloistered and occasionally undramatic. Delphine’s routine is consistently interesting, but it leaves no room for the kinds of arguments that would have allowed the film to engage—or even convert—more skeptical viewers.
Despite sometimes seeming like fan service, The Broken Heart Spread is a compelling character study and an intriguing start to the Theatre Company’s new six-film series, the Playwright Initiative: Solo Works. Last month, it seemed ironic that the company was premiering a film during a resurgence of in-person performances, but given the deadliness of the Delta variant, audiences should be grateful that intimate and inventive virtual theater has continued.
SEE IT: The Broken Heart Spread streams on Stellar through Aug. 22. Purchase access at thetheatreco.org/the-broken-heart-spread. $20. $100 for the six-film series.