Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 30, 2016

Sotto Voce

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 11, 2016
by Stuart Gamble

Sotto Voce in Italian means in a soft voice. Indeed, this new play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz is a quiet, chamber piece, yet whose timeless themes of lost love, obsession, collective guilt, and the immigrant experience scream out to the rafters. Featuring only three actors (two of whom play two roles apiece), this is a bold and powerful drama sprinkled with humor throughout.

The story begins in 1999 when an exhibition for the 60th anniversary of the U.S. St. Louis (“the ship of indifference”) is being planned in Miami. This particular ship set sail from Germany to Cuba in the spring of 1939. Some 900 Jews fled Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis in hopes of a safe future. Unfortunately, because most of the passengers didn’t have Cuban Visas, they were denied entry. The same occurred when they attempted to enter the U.S. Much to the horror of the passengers and the world, those onboard were forced to return to Germany and an uncertain future.

Photo by Ava Lindenmaier
This little known episode of 20th century, pre-Holocaust history sadly remains a chapter in world history that should be brought to light. Cruz’ drama, “Sotto Voce,” does precisely that. We first meet the rather peculiar, black-clad Cuban student Saquiel Rafaeli (Jaime Carrillo) who is on an obsessive search for the Garbo-like reclusive writer Bernadette Kahn (Annette Miller). Saquiel finally locates Kahn and holds vigil across from her apartment building; he has personal reasons for searching for Kahn, but she suffers from agoraphobia and her only human contact is with her housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (Evelyn Howe). Bernadette and Lucila are equally concerned and fascinated by Saquiel’s stalking behavior. Soon, the play becomes a “virtual affair of voices.”

The actors in this romantic triangle give memorable performances. Miller is tough but tender as the disillusioned Bernadette who dreamily drifts from the present to the past. Carrillo gives an eloquent performance as the driven yet empathetic Saquiel and briefly as Bernadette’s lost Jewish lover Ariel Strauss. Finally, Evelyn Howe makes both her earthy Lucila and Nina Strauss (Ariel’s doomed sister) realistic and sympathetic.

Directed with assurance and emotional power by Daniel Gidron, “Sotto Voce” is a relevant theatrical piece. In a year in which world immigration has captured much attention, Cruz’ timeless play should be seen and remembered for years to come as a testament to the lives of those who seek freedom from oppression.