Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The play is set in the relative present (the year 2000). Bemadette Kahn is a reclusiveall but agoraphobic80-year-old resident of New York City. Her company is largely limited to her Colombian housekeeper Lucila. Out of the blue, a young Cuban man in New York on a student visa reaches out to her, seeking her help in understanding a cache of letters Bemadette wrote sixty years earlier to a long-dead lover named Ariel Strauss. Strauss and his sister Nina were among the over 900 Jewish passengers on the MS St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cubaa tragic trip that has been denominated "the voyage of the damned." Only a handful of the ship's Jewish passengers were allowed to disembark in Cuba. Nor were these refugees from the Third Reich permitted safe harbor in the U.S. (a black mark on the FDR administration that was only partially mitigated by a formal apology from the U.S. State Department to survivors of the incident in 2012). When the ship was forced to return to Europe, 254 of its passengers ended up perishing in the Holocaust.
The student Saquiel's desire to meet with Bemadette, who in the intervening years has become a famous novelist, is rebuffed by her, in spite of the intercession of her maid Lucila. Over time, as Lucila forms a face-to-face friendship with Saquiel, Bemadette consents to interacting with the young student and writer through the conduits of telephone, instant messaging, and the dreamlike, virtual trips their conjoined imaginations take togethertrips that inspire Bemadette to put her memories on paper and finally begin to pry open her closed-down existence.
The play has been described as a metaphysical love story, the couple's relationship as a platonic love affair. But, however characterized, it is the uniting of Bemadette and Saquiel's souls through memory that makes the play sing. (Saquiel has a connection to the ill-fated St. Louis through his family.)
Three-character plays (like two-character plays) are theatrical creatures that must be carefully tended to achieve optimum audience investment. Aided by Cruz's emotionally moving script, director DS Magid skillfully navigates her three actors through a fluid landscape that shifts in lyrical undulations (like the gently lapping of the sea) from solid brick-and-mortar to the gauze and ether of conjured recollection. Francesca Shrady plays the difficult and multi-layered role of Bemadette expertly. Through this beautifully expressive performance she never allows the pain in Bemadette's heart to define her in off-putting bitterness. She bears her scars nobly, though not without some tendence to the deep ache of what she has lost. Shrady offers wonderful moments of near coquetry as she teases and half-flirts with Saquiel, surprised and charmed by his attention. That attention from John Reiser's persistent Saquiel is delivered with sincerity and as much charm as the Communist-rigidity of his social interaction skills allow. Saquiel is laser-focused on getting as much information out of Bemadette as he is able, but Reiser allows Saquiel's missiona near obsessionto never get in the way of making the character he plays fully human, his presence more than just the catalyst for enlivening Bemadette's memories. As Lucila Pulpo, Juliet Salazar once again shows Teatro Paraguas audiences her fine versatility as an actress; there are few actors in town who can quip with such comic finesse, and she plays her character's more sober moments with equal skill.
I was impressed in this finely wrought production by Skip Rapoport's color-perfect dreamlike lighting design. Alix Hudson's sound design leads us comfortably from present to past. Argos MacCallum and Armando Hernandez's set design is a perfect rendering of the safe literary cocoon of Bemadette's study. The room is filled with symbols reflective of a professional woman who was once a citizen of the world, but who now largely occupies the landscape of her thoughts. A nice touch is the photo album that sits on her coffee table. I don't recall that it is ever referred to overtly, but it serves as a perfect metaphor for Bemadette's constant reminder of her own past.
At one point in the play, Bemadette says, "Memories are inefficient and very impolite." To which Saquiel responds: "But they're also obedient to some extent." Through the course of this wonderful Teatro Paraguas production of Sotto Voce, Bemadette Kahn endeavors to make her memories behave, as Saquiel strives to understand them. Together they explore both past and present in the kind of imaginative way that theater does best. And happily, at Teatro Paraguas, these characters have a lot of very talented people helping them do this.
Sotto Voce, directed by DS Magid, is being performed at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie B, Santa Fe NM. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Through October 15, 2017. Tickets and information at www.teatroparaguas.org or 505-424-1601.