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Franca Sofia Barchiesi as a German-born novelist who is haunted by memories of the S.S. St. Louis, which left Nazi Germany for Cuba filled with Jewish refugees but was turned back.
Written and Directed by Nilo Cruz
Theater for the New City
155 1st Ave, NY
Reviewed March 1, 2014 by Larry Litt
I'm always fascinated by literary quests. Why would a writer go to the tremendous emotional struggle and mental expense of writing a particular work? When in their lives did an idea germinate and how long before it was born, grew and reached maturity before reaching the last stage of lettered life? What were the sperm donors and egg hosts? What personal experiences keep the flame of research alive, trying to understand the causes, both overt and underlying that lead to an engrossing story or poem?
L-R: Franca Sofia Barchiesi and Andhy Mendez as a passionate, Jewish-Cuban young man who assumes the place of her lost lover in her powerful imagination.
Sotto Voce, Nilo Cruz' new play asks these and many more personal and literary questions pf its characters. The answers are played out by one of the most engaging casts I've seen working together in a long while.
The play's motivating character is Bemadette, a much published and celebrated novelist now a mature aging beauty living in self imposed seclusion in a spacious Upper West Side apartment. Franca Sofia Barchiesi movingly, joyously and sadly brings her to life as an agoraphobic intellectual living with writer's block but full of a lifetime's worth of repressed personal memories. One moment Bemadette is an old woman suffering from a stroke, the next Ms Barchiesi transforms her into a much younger version with all the energy and beauty of her European past. It's an exciting transition from girl to woman that demands focused attention.
But often Bemadette is a recluse who at the play's significant moment is repelling an insistent young stalker with his own grand and perhaps damaging literary ideas. Saquiel is a student, also an aspiring serious writer. He's on the quest for information about one of the passengers on the ill-fated SS Saint Louis, a passenger ocean liner that carried German Jews to their doom in 1939. Saquiel embodies the Jewish quest for historical knowledge about this tragedy. Andhy Mendez burns high energy into Saquiel's impatient life. The clock is ticking for the young, romantic Cuban student on a mission in New York on a fast expiring visa. We feel another gate about to close, another unconsummated relationship to pity.
Franca Sofia Barchiesi (R) and Arielle Jacobs (L) as her understanding Colombian maid, who is reading the novelist's fortune from her coffeee grounds.
To be fair this isn't the first historical novel, play or film about the SS St Louis tragedy. What Nilo Cruz majestically creates through these characters is New York in the 21^st Century filled with immigration problems that delay lives, muffle desires and frustrate fulfillment. Arielle Jacobs sometimes giddy, sometimes silly often rebellious but always bright and charming portrayal of Lucila, Bemadette's Columbian housekeeper is a reminder of the world after September 9/11, a world that has clamped down on immigration visas and their dreamers. An American government attempting to control the lives of everyone it can pervades the borders. Caught in this officialdom is the literary quest, the desire to know more about the past so that maybe we can learn from it.
There's a unique scene in Soto Voce, a virtual date brought to life by Saquiel and Bemadette. She can't go out, he isn't allowed in her apartment. However they're compelled unite. It becomes a balletique tribute to New York City's joys and inspirations for young lovers. You will remember this scene for a long time. It's what committed writing can do. Nilo Cruz brings imagination to life for us.
No this isn't another maudlin play about the Holocaust. Above all else it's a love story about growing older with the tragedy of wartime love. No matter how far removed we are from romance somewhere deep inside love's deepest remembrance wants to feel the air one more time.
Sotto Voce is a beautifully written and directed reminder that some of us are always going to be curious while struggling with our political and personal histories. At the same time we're balancing life and love. It's the perfect quest.
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