Friday, May 21, 2010

the sound of a voice

Here's my Denver Post review of The Sound of a Voice, playing at the Paragon Theatre.

There's a special kind of loneliness in those who have been burned by love repeatedly. We all know someone like this: They are armed with a distinct wariness, sometimes bitter, sometimes eternally hopeful, just cautious.

But with the deck so severely stacked in expectation of a negative outcome, when they do finally reach out it almost inevitably leads to disappointment.

The push and pull created from the battle between fearfulness and desperation for human contact is the backdrop for David Henry Hwang's gorgeous, stark play "The Sound of a Voice," presented by Paragon Theatre.

Inspired by Japanese folklore and Noh theatre, Hwang's story revolves around a wandering samurai (Dale Li) who comes upon a woman (Sheila Ivy Traister) who lives alone in a cottage deep in the forest. She offers him food and a place to stay, saying that visitors are rare.

The man and woman are both so restrained, so choked up and self-silencing with fear of what might happen should they open themselves to another that they aren't even able to provide their true names, wishing to retain their mystery and aloofness. The man even says, "If I gave you a name it would only be made up."

Indeed, Hwang invests the entire piece with an air of inscrutability, of otherworldliness, a sense that we are looking in on a sphere that is not our own, perhaps a world that has been created by the mere fact of these two people coming together.

Adding to this sense of unreality are several moments reminiscent of Pinter or Beckett: The woman avers that she hasn't left her home in a long time, but that she knows the area and that the nearest village is a two-day walk. The man counters that the place he came from is ". . . a new village. It wasn't there in those days."

Given the title of the play, it's apparent that sounds and especially human sounds are going to figure largely in the story. Both characters are comforted by sounds; the sound of a waterfall or pouring tea — even the sound of the man's breathing in the next room will comfort the woman, she says.

But in the night, the man hears her softly playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute (played by Michael Andrew Doherty). When he asks her about it the next day, she says she plays only for her own pleasure and is embarrassed at the idea of playing for him. She eventually relents, though, signaling that she may be letting down her guard a bit.

The circuitous dance of intimacy and turning away from that intimacy continues in this vein.

But at the root of it, Hwang seems to be saying that, ultimately, our natural state is to be alone, and that we will always be alone despite brief, shining, respites spent withanother.

Director Warren Sherrill has put together a stunningly beautiful yet stark show. The emotional layers upon layers are all revealed eventually; we get to see depths in this story that in lesser hands would likely go unexplored.

Li brings a sweet bluster to the samurai character, conveying the loneliness that often hides beneath arrogance, as well as his fear of being hurt — or bested. Li also manages to convey his reluctance to admit to that fear.

And Traister's portrayal of the woman is riveting. Even beneath the demure, traditionally subservient exterior, Traister slowly reveals more and more assertiveness. As the woman's own desires come out, first in a trickle, then eventually a flood, her mincing, tiny steps and shy, bowed head give way to something entirely new and powerful, and it's a beautiful and frightening thing to witness.

Also of note are dancers Kim Robards and Gregory Gonzalez performing short interludes between scenes as "spirits," illustrating the growing intimacy between the man and woman. They add to the alien, shadowy nature of this world we are being allowed to see.

After all, that's what love is in a way: a new, private world carved out of the old when two people become one.

And perhaps worlds are destroyed when one becomes two again, as the laws of emotional entropy tell us it one day must.

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