World Premiere of Nilo Cruz's SOTTO VOCE Set for Theater for the New City, 2/15-3/9
"Sotto Voce" is a dream play in which a passionate, Jewish-Cuban young man (Saquiel) sets out to recover memories of the S.S. St. Louis which, in 1939, left Nazi Germany for Cuba filled with Jewish refugees but was turned back by Cuba, the U.S. and Canada. The young man's grandaunt was on the voyage. He seeks out a prominent, elderly, German-born novelist (Bemadette) who, as a young woman, loved a Jewish man who was a passenger to Cuba on the ship. Saquiel assumes the place of her lost lover in her powerful imagination. They both begin to fantasize a metaphysical love affair in which they share the conundrum of coming to grips with memories of that "voyage of the damned." She is trying to master them, he is seeking to understand them. The play venerates the supreme power of imagination that could bring these different people together.
Such an impossible love could only occur in another dimension, not the physical dimension. As a counterpoint to their experience, we meet the author's understanding maid (Lucila), an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, who hordes her employer's discarded writings (her "secret sorrows") but is incapable of living to such an extent.
Essentially, the play is a beautiful story of an older woman and younger man who find a unity of souls through their relationship with history and literature. It illustrates a holding on to memory that is very prevalent among Cubans as it is with the Jewish people. Playwright Nilo Cruz was born into a Cuban family which immigrated to the U.S. from Matanzas, a province of Cuba, when he was ten. Though not Jewish, observes that there are many Jews in Cuba, who arrived there before and after World War II. "The Cubans understand the Jews in a way they would never be aware of," he says. The play is not political, but it is rich with the refugee experience and with the emotional life of the characters.
The play was commissioned by Theater for the New City, with support from the New York State Council on the Arts, after TNC's Executive Artistic Director, Crystal Field, met Mr. Cruz at the Bogota Theater Festival in 2012. The production has also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Nilo Cruz won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play, "Anna in the Tropics," making him the first Latino to be so honored. He is author of more than 13 plays and four translations. He studied theater first at Miami-Dade Community College and later in NYC under fellow Cuban María Irene Fornés. Fornés recommended Cruz to Paula Vogel, who was then teaching at Brown University, where Cruz received his M.F.A. in 1994. He was playwright-in-residence at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, FL, where he wrote "Anna in the Tropics," which received the Pulitzer and Steinberg prizes in 2003. Its Broadway premiere in 2004 starred Jimmy Smitts in the lead role. Plays by Cruz have been presented by The Public Theater, NY Theatre Workshop, Pasadena Playhouse, McCarter Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Repertory, The Alliance, New Theatre, Florida Stage and the Coconut Grove Playhouse. He is an alumnus of New Dramatists and has taught playwriting at Brown University, the University of Iowa, Yale and University of Miami. In 2009, he received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a distinguished American playwright in mid-career.
The actors are Franca Barchiesi (as Bemadette), Andhy Mendez (as Saquiel) and Arielle Jacobs (as the maid, Lucila). Set design is by Adrian Jones. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Sound design is by Erik Lawson. Costume design is by Anita Yavich.
Franca Barchiesi (Bemadette) has played leading roles in two previous plays by Nilo Cruz: "A Park in our House" (NY Theatre Workshop and McCarter Theater) and "Dancing on Her Knees" (Public Theater). Other leading roles include Ana in "The Clean House" by Sarah Ruhl (Yale Rep, Wooly Mammoth in DC, Ensemble Theatre in CA) and Clara in "House of the Spirits" by Caridad Svitch (Denver Theatre Center). She appeared in "Big Love" by Charles L. Mee at Dallas Theatre Center and acted regularly in Williamstown Theatre Festival productions directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos and others. In 2005, she received the Helen Hayes Award; in 2010, she was nominated for the Denver Post Ovation Award for "House of the Spirits." She started out as a dancer with the GenEva Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet. After relocating to the U.S., she appeared in several musicals on the west coast before moving to NYC to train in Circle-in-the-Square's professional acting program. She has had leading parts in numerous indie films and won the IFP Excellence in Film Acting award for "Heat & Silence." She has narrated two PBS documentaries.
Andhy Mendez (Saquiel) was born in Havana, Cuba and immigrated to Miami, Florida at a young age. A ten year veteran of Univision's Sabado Gigante, he is a graduate of The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. His theater credits include "Strawberry and Chocolate," "Hamlet: Prince of Cuba," "Between Two Worlds," "Downside Risk," "The Duchess of Malfi," "I am a Camera," "Macbeth: Let It Be," "Pullman Car Hiawatha" and "Loved: In Four Shorts." His film/TV credits include "Gunny," "It's My Party," "Half a Perfect World," "Cuban Blood," "For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story," "Orange Is The New Black," "Golden Boy," "Gossip Girl," "NYC 22" and "Blue Bloods."
Arielle Jacobs (Lucila) replaced Jordin Sparks as Nina Rosario in the four-time Tony & Grammy award winning Broadway musical "In The Heights," appearing opposite composer/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. She appeared in the national tours of "In the Heights" (as Nina) and "High School Musical" (as Gabriella). Other credits include pre-Broadway workshops of "MASK" (directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.) and "Nightingale" (directed by Moises Kaufman). She starred as Julia in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Two Gentlemen of Verona: a Rock Opera." Her TV/film credits include "Commander in Chief," "Dance War," "Water Lilies" and "Disney's 365."
Photo by Jonathan Slaff