SMTD students present Nilo Cruz's impossible love story

Monday, April 11, 2016 - 10:28pm

It is often remarked that great art is “timeless.” It’s a vessel which somehow transcends the sea of society and temporality to approach the undiscovered country of an aesthetic ideal. Which certainly is a romantic thought, but one which doesn’t necessarily hold up under close analysis — it could easily be countered that great art, rather than being “timeless” is in fact imbued with an excess of time, a multiplicity of temporal place. It isn’t that great art doesn’t belong to any time; it’s that it belongs to many times, contains themes with a cross-generational resonance, captures not only the zeitgeist of the era in which it was created but also imbibes the enduring spirit of humanity. And while it certainly is too soon to pass any judgments regarding its greatness, Ann Arbor audiences will have an opportunity to experience a play next week which embraces this principle of multiple times: Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce.”

“I was actually going to be assisting a director named Peter Brook on this play, and it was going to be performed in France in French,” said Héctor Flores Komatsu, a School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior and the director of “Sotto Voce.”

Komatsu said he was initially introduced to the play through a production that fell through. “I read the play and I was immediately struck by all these three characters, and by the themes of refugees, and helping people in need, and the impossibility of love, discovering ourselves through literature, through reading other people's things.”

After the initial production failed to materialize, Komatsu contacted the playwright to inquire about the possibility of putting on a production of “Sotto Voce” in Ann Arbor.

“This play has just sat in the back of my mind, so I spoke (to) Nilo (Cruz) and said ‘I would love to do this at Michigan’ — it’s not published yet, but ‘I would love if I could direct it and share it with the community of Ann Arbor, especially given the subject of refugees right now,’ ” Komatsu said. “It approaches the subject of refugees not in terms of key figures, or (statistics), but rather in a very human aspect. It affects us all; it’s a pain that creates more pain here and there, and in a way comes to affect people from all parts of the world.”

“Sotto Voce” tells two stories which take place decades apart, linked by a common character, a German writer named Bemadette Kahn. The earlier of these two stories takes place in the late 1930s; a young Jewish man, Ariel Strauss, and his sister set sail from Germany bound for Cuba, fleeing from Hitler’s regime along with 900 some other Jewish individuals. Behind them they leave Ariel’s lover, Bemadette — before them they face the impassive visages of Cuba and America, both of which turn away the refugees. The ship turns back to Europe, and upon arrival the siblings vanish among Hitler’s horrors. Bemadette later moves to New York, where in the ensuing decades she has become a successful novelist, but has never written about her former lover.

“Out of nowhere comes this young Jewish Cuban man, a student (named Saquiel Rafaeli), calling her home (phone)” Komatsu said. “He says ‘I’m here in New York to ask you about Ariel Strauss. I found the love letter you sent to him while he was on the boat, and we’re interested in the stories of the human tragedy that was forgotten, we want the world to hear these stories so it doesn’t happen again.’ ”

Bemadette resists talking about Strauss, but Saquiel persists, communicating with the writer through phone and the intermediary of Bemadette’s Colombian maid Lucila Pulpo.

“Little by little they start to develop this very intimate relationship, between writer and student, young and old-age,” Komatsu said. “In which (Saquiel) becomes the imaginary Ariel Strauss in (Bemadette’s) mind, because she can only hear his voice, and it reminds her so much of the voice of Ariel Strauss.”

Komatsu views the play as containing a great deal of meaning beyond the actual words, conveyed through human interaction and subtlety of expression.

“It’s the experience beyond the words that is at the core of this piece,” Komatsu said. “It’s called ‘Sotto Voce,’ which means under voice … there’s something about the subtlety of words and the silence between the words, just like the silence between music. It’s a very lyrical piece. When you read it, it feels like a composition.”

Komatsu also discussed the cast of the play — a small production, the play only calls for three actors and one musician, and is made up of students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Bemadette, Saquiel and Lucila are played by Larissa Marten, Aaron Weinstein and Anastasia Zavitzanos, respectively, all of whom are pursuing a BFA. Julian Bridges, who is a SMTD Percussion and Jazz Studies major, will be providing music for the production.

“It’s an international cast. The girl playing Bemadette is actually German … she was born in America, but she speaks German fluently, she goes there every summer, so she understands things very inherently about the character, because she understands that world a little closer,” Komatsu said. “The Colombian maid is being played by Anastasia Zavitzanos, who is Greek-American, and she’s quite fantastic … and there’s a connection right now with Greece and the refugee crisis, so it’s been very close for her.”

Additionally, the actor playing Saquiel, Aaron Weinstein, was born in Puerto Rico, but was adopted by a Jewish family, thus making him almost a mirror imagine of Saquiel.

“Each of us have our own personal searches that we’re figuring out, by reading the play,” Komatsu said. “I think it’s important then that it’s really sensitive actors, who really understand it to a much more human level.”

The performance of “Sotto Voce” in Arthur Miller Theatre, which is sponsored by the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Department of Latina/o Studies and Arts at Michigan, will be the first performance of the play on a college campus, and only its third performance ever. The play itself will be published the same day as the performance. Komatsu has had conversations with Cruz about the work, but he also notes much of the play has to be discovered in the process of rehearsing and performing it.

“With any kind of literary work you have to sort of inhabit it, and figure it out with patience,” Komatsu said. “There’s nothing that Nilo could explain to us that isn’t already in the play … the important thing is empathy.”

Komatsu also noted several themes which he has personally absorbed from the play.

“As people who are young, we forget that time is a thing, and that time exists, but that time is also scarce,” Komatsu said. “As someone who is young, coming into a play like this, it has already started to teach me a lot, about ‘how can you still find life and the desire to live when you’re 80 years old, and you feel like you have nothing ahead of you?’ And then you find something that is there. There is always something to be found if you look.”