There is a simple elegance to Portland Stage Company’s production of “Sotto Voce” that stirs the imagination as it rekindles memories in its poignant characters.
It’s a touching tale, rooted in history, where the power of words and a soft-spoken voice allow a young Jewish student and an elderly German gentile to forge a relationship that transcends time and age.
Anita Stewart’s set has a whimsical quality. Piles of books are scattered across a midnight blue stage, interspersed with a desk and a few chairs. A gradual incline at the back of the stage offers a subtle warping of reality, like part of a Salvador Dali painting. Projections on the back wall complete the surrealist illusion, allowing the audience to see into the memories and imaginations of the characters on stage.
Like Stewart’s set, “Sotto Voce” combines reality with imagination and memory, weaving a dreamlike tail filled with symbolism and hidden meaning.
In Latin American tradition, Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz utilizes magical realism to explore the plight of Jews in relation to Cuban history. The play focuses on the real-life story of the M.S. St. Louis, which left Germany with 1,000 Jewish refugees in 1939, only to be turned away by Cuba and the United States.
Carmen Roman plays Bemadette, a German gentile who now lives in New York City. Her young Jewish lover, Ariel Strauss, and his sister fled Germany aboard the M.S. St. Louis, but were sent back to Europe with the other refugees. Bemadette never saw them again.
Now a prominent writer, she has written countless novels reimagining the stories of the ship’s passengers. Bemadette has become a recluse who’s only companion is a Colombian maid named Lucila (Anita Petry). When a young Cuban Jew, Saquiel (James Cusati-Moyer), comes to New York City in search of Bemadette and her stories, a fanciful love triangle forms that changes all three characters’ lives.
Portland Stage has chosen a cast that embraces both the fantastical elements of the story and the political realities of their characters. Roman allows the audience to see Bemadette’s vulnerability behind her tough exterior. She is enthralling to watch as her character and Saquiel build an endearing dreamlike relationship that allows Bemadette to revisit her younger days.
Cusati-Moyer exudes charm as Saquiel, wooing Lucila with Latin dancing and winning over the reluctant Bemadette virtually on the phone with unwavering persistence and an irresistible soft voice – sotto voce.
Petry’s Lucila is a feisty addition to the cast, highlighting her character’s Colombian heritage and underlying sadness at having to leave her beloved country.
“Sotto Voce” is an enchanting love story that is steeped in imagination and history. It’s an emotional tale of love and loss that provides a fanciful twist to Latin America’s colorful past and politics.
WHERE: 25A Forest Ave., Portland
DATE REVIEWED: Nov. 4; play runs through the Nov. 20
TICKETS: $32 to $48 with discounts for students and seniors
CONTACT: 774-0465, portlandstage.org