Sotto Voce, by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Daniel Gidron. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Annette Miller as Bernadette Kahn; photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier
"if you let the line grow faint. . ."
Jaime Carillo and Evelyn Howe; photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier
Once you learn the power of poetry it becomes inescapable. For emigree Bernadette Kahn, a famous resident of New York City who once lived under the Nazi regime in Berlin, her life is devoted not to poetry itself but to a poetic soulfulness. A popular author she lives in reasonable splendor (a fine set by John McDermott) with an almost full-time housekeeper and cook and her dreams of the man she loved who was lost to an international incident when the immigrant ship, St. Louis, bearing Jews away from war-torn Europe, was turned away from Havana, Cuba and then from Miami and was compelled to return its passenger refugees to a world where they were instantly imprisoned and then slaughtered. Bernadette lost friends, close and dear friends, Ariel and Nina Strauss, the man she loved and his sister, to this disaster.
As she grows older she lives alone in her luxury, abandoning the outside world for her memories and her dreams and her attempt to write the worst part of her life before it is too late and it has escaped her altogether. When a Cuban man, Saquiel Rafaeli, approaches her, stalks her in fact, claiming to have letters she once wrote to Ariel Strauss she is put on the defensive and forces him to woo her into friendship, a relationship and perhaps renewed love. This is the substance of this play, the quick look at the plot. However the play itself is about language and its strengths and its power to sway the heart and mind of the listener as its poetry sings into your subconscious mind.
Director Daniel Gidron has the good fortune to have cast as Bernadette the actress Annette Miller. This woman is a master, or mistress in the sensual sense, of poetry. If someone cast her as the pea under the mattress in the foreign princess's guest bedroom, that play would inevitably be about the pea and only about the pea. Miller can make pure gold out of dross. With this play she has to work against logic and a forced reality to bring true beauty and honesty to the proceedings. We never see her sweat, so she must have some support and help in "Sotto Voce." Some of it is the script, the language of which is glorious, its magical sentences sometimes too long to remember as its imagery drowns you again and again.
Cruz is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning play "Anna in the Tropics" and he is the first Latino to ever win that prize. Both that play and his next one "Two Sisters and a Piano" have been noted for their use of poetic language. "Sotto Voce" has many of the same qualities. No one is better at making reality out of symbolism than Miller. Communicating with Saquiel via I-Mail she even makes the word "send" at the conclusion of each note ring with a bell-like tone that is alternately chilling and thrilling depending on the words that precede the indicated action.
At the end of Act One she leaves us with physical imagery that stops the heart. In her nightgown and peignoir in Act Two she physically enthralls us with her ethereal beauty. Revealing the secret of Bernadette's experience with a Nazi officer after losing her lover to their tortures, the actress brings an almost unbearable sorrow mixed with incredible strength of purpose to the stage. For this woman, as Miller plays her, "all the world's a stage" and she is the designer of the piece, the author of the story and the victim of its circumstances all simultaneously.
Jaime Carrillo plays Saquiel with amazing control. At points in the story when we anticipate his fury, he is calm and correct and reinforced by convictions. Unlike Bernadette Saquiel is eager to cross the line that is disappearing and move into a more personal relationship. Carrillo moves to the inner music of Cruz's lovely language and a sensuality escapes him through his voice and his eyes. This is a pitch-perfect performance and one that literally breeds the amazing off-spring of thought.
As the other woman he comes to love, Lucila Pulpo, who is also Bernadette's housekeeper, Evelyn Howe is the ideal third leg of the triangle in this play. She handles the character in an almost too Rita Moreno-comic manner but she never slips into the characterization. She is in character all the time and that character is grounded in reality. She is not the romantic, poetic person that the others play. She is the voice of the audience, reasoning, and strong, and definitive. Even so, swallowing her hurtful pride and her lack of belief in her qualities, she becomes the most romantic of the three.
Jaime Carillo and Annette Miller; photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier
Left without recourse when the law intervenes in the plans Saquiel has laid Howe's Lucila lays out the resolutions through which Bernadette will survive. It is in this final sequence of the play that author Cruz manages to fight his way into the melodrama he has avoided until now. It could easily go awry except for the simplicity of the statements delivered by Howe. This is very nice work, indeed.
Carrillo and Howe also play the Jewish brother and sister Ariel and Nina Strauss who are lost when the ship is turned away from Cuba. On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially "stateless." When Cuba refused them entry and the United States followed suit, they recrossed the Atlantic to disembark in Belgium. All were lost to the Nazi Holocaust to come. In this play some of the possessions of the Strauss's were recovered by a Cuban citizen and it is those letters to Ariel from Bernadette that key the plot of the play. For me this is the weakest link in the poetic drama that follows as the peculiarity of their turning up in a place they never reached escapes me.
Lovely costumes by Deborah A. Brothers, effective and moody lighting by Robyn Warfield and superb underscore sound design by Brad Berridge aid immensely in the romantic world of this play. Dialect coaching by Ute DeFarlo has carefully placed all of the characters in perspective and, as noted earlier, the beautiful set designed by John McDermott provides a perfect frame for this work.
If the sound of romantic language, of lyrically prosed poetry appeals to you and if the story of lost love nearly recovered fifty years too late is something you enjoy, this is a play for you to see. There is talk of ghosts and ghostly figures; there is death, near-death, and other forms of loss; there is literature and narrative and love-letters throughout. To top it all off there is reality, though perhaps a reality far removed from our own. And there is Annette Miller. You can't ask for much more than this.
Sotto Voce plays in the Elayne Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through September 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line to shakespeare.org.