Oasis Theatre Collective

at Blue Rider Theater

A young warrior comes upon a remote dwelling where a woman thought by some to be a witch lives. She invites him to stay and he does–but the longer he stays, the more attached to her he becomes and the less inclined to continue on his travels. Finally, however, he leaves, whereupon the grief-stricken woman kills herself. He later returns to find her gone from him forever.

This is a familiar tale, one found in the folklore of virtually every tribe in the world. In one version the woman is a vampire who saps the strength of men and turns them from their quests; in another version the man takes what he can get from the woman until that old road starts calling him; in a third version the woman is the mother whose heart the boy must inevitably break by his departure; in a fourth the witch and the warrior represent the eternal conflict between the violent nature of man and the nurturing one of woman.

David Henry Hwang sets out to tell his story all of these ways at the same time. That he manages to do so, and that the Oasis production is successful in conveying this kaleidoscopic narration, is nothing short of phenomenal. The Sound of a Voice is no Rashomon, with several clearly defined points of view adding up to an uncertain consensus; its narrative is nebulous from beginning to end. Are the flowers that the woman so carefully cultivates the captive souls of other unfortunate visitors? Are they the offspring of her soul? What is the man taking from her when he literally robs her of her flowers? Or are the flowers merely flowers? If they are, what does it mean when the woman dances with the flowers in a movement similar to the warrior’s exercises with his weapons? The play points us down one path, then another, offering no clue whatsoever to which one we are to follow–and even laughing at us for thinking that any one of them could be the “correct” one.

The Chinese American Hwang intended The Sound of a Voice to be staged in the Zen-influenced manner of a Japanese No play. While keeping the bare and spare look of the original, director Mark Wohlgenant has chosen to further increase the ambiguity and universality of his production through color-blind casting. Thus, the woman is played by Caucasian actress Louise Freistadt, and the man is played by black actor William King. The incidental music, composed and performed by High Anxiety rock ‘n’ roller Joe Cerqua, is vaguely Caribbean; Christian Pierce’s Japanese set includes European flowers; and Susan Dring’s costumes blend elements from medieval Europe and Japan with those of modern Africa. Given this hodgepodge of motifs, one would think that the production would become hopelessly muddied, but the action is executed with such razor-clean elegance that we are never confused–except when the playwright wants us to be.

In his Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang plays with Western cultural assumptions, juggling our expectations so deftly that we are forced to view the world with new eyes (another Zen technique). The Sound of a Voice explores the same themes, and, while a smaller play in terms of power and physical dimension, it still contains enough genius to justify Time magazine’s declaration that Hwang “has the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller, and maybe the best of them all.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jorge Garcia Torres.