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Review: 'The Sound of a Voice' at Paragon Theatre

Captivating 'Sound of a Voice' explores tale of trying to find love in the face of past heartbreaks

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Courtesy Paragon Theatre

Dale Li, left, and Sheila Ivy Traister in this undated photo from "The Sound of a Voice," which plays from May 8 to June 5 at the Paragon Theatre in Denver.

"The Sound of a Voice"

 

Date: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from May 8 to June 5

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Place: Paragon Theatre, 1387 S. Santa Fe Drive, Denver, 80223 [map]

Cost: $17/seniors or students; $21/adults

 

Written by David Henry Hwang

Directed by Warren Sherrill

Starring Dale Li, Sheila Ivy Traister, Kim Robards, Greg Gonzales

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Official website of Paragon Theatre

Falling in love doesn't get any easier with age.

 

The scars of past heartbreaks can breed suspicion, and the weight of old disappointments can make trusting someone new all but impossible. In the Paragon Theatre’s current production of David Henry Hwang's "The Sound of a Voice," such emotional roadblocks are more than simple emotional hang-ups that can be resolved by time or a good therapist.

 

Instead, they're the spurs for a timeless tragedy, central elements in an emotional parable.

 

Director Warren Sherrill relies on understated action, stark set pieces and fluid choreography in the Paragon's elegant staging, which spans a little more than an hour. The short running time doesn't take away from the tragedy’s overall effect. The constant insistence on intensity and simplicity makes Hwang’s text, inspired by Japanese folklore and Noh theater, all the more resonant.

 

The premise is simple – an unnamed female character (Sheila Ivy Traister) welcomes an unnamed male traveler (Dale Li) to her isolated forest home. She invites the samurai to remain as her guest, urging him to abandon his journeys and find stability in love.

 

The arrangement is quickly derailed by the onus of past disappointments and deep rooted fears.

 

Both of the middle-aged characters have been damaged by their experiments with love and human contact. He calls himself a "man who fears women," he refuses to give his host his real name. She reveals a history of isolation – she's learned to play the shackuhachi, or Japanese flute, to resemble the sound of the human voice. It’s a skill that’s grown from the pain of being alone.

 

As the visitor stays longer, the rift grows. He reveals he was lured to the woman’s isolated home in search of glory, chasing tales of a witch who beguiles her male visitors. She reveals he’s not the first visitor; the others have all gone. She’s since honed skills in strength and swordsmanship, talents that she fears have "crossed boundaries" of societal gender roles.

 

The weight of both characters' fears and foibles grow, and eventually becomes the unseen, unavoidable villain of the piece. A human connection is spoiled by its constant sway. It quashes the comfort and happiness of love, with a heartbreaking effect.

 

The power of Hwang’s text is in its dynamic dialogue and its straightforward action. The playwright’s stress is on basic and timeless human emotion, a subject made all the more powerful by dialogue that rings with the power and rhythm of poetry.

 

"The grief remained inside me," Traister declares at one point while remembering past pains. "It would sit like water, still."

 

The Paragon’s production keeps the intent and power of the text intact. Both Li and Traister treat their roles with a due amount of transparency. Li is dogged and stubborn in avoiding emotional attachment to his host; his focus on losing himself in everyday tasks and concerns of honor make the role pulled from legend seem contemporary.

 

Meanwhile, Traister’s performance finds balance in like amounts of vulnerability and diffidence. The visitors who have come and gone have damaged this isolated resident of the woods, and her improvised survival skills can’t find an answer for loneliness. Traister is heartbreaking as she reveals the combined effect of a cycle of loss, grief and isolation.

 

Li and Traister don’t have the only time onstage – two dancers clad in black take the role of unseen spirits in the background. Between scenes, Kim Robards and Greg Gonzales dance in motions that seem both complementary and contrary, movement that hints at the strained relationship between the two lead characters. They also lurk in the background as stagehands, handing the main characters objects and moving the set pieces. It’s a touch that adds an ethereal touch to the action, and one that helps break up the repetitious action.

 

Jen Orf's subtle lighting design helps round out the feel of a distant, isolated setting. Her cobalt blue shades recreate the feel of deep night, and her bright ochers make the mood lighter during the daylight scenes. Christopher Wink's scenic design succeeds in its simplicity, and the inclusion of Michael Andrew Doherty’s live performance on the Japanese flute helps clinch a sense of setting.

 

It's a tale that unfolds quickly – there’s none of the drawn-out intrigue of Western drama, no slowly building sadness that stretches for hours.

 

But the concision makes the message all the more powerful and approachable. In the anonymity, in the lack of detail, the audience can grasp the universal questions all the more easily.

 

Are the rewards of love worth the scars, the disappointment, the inevitable pain that come as a result?

 

The questions have a much wider range and resonance than the play’s rustic forest setting.

 

Three and a half stars out of four.

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