‘The Sound of a Voice’ and ‘Cuba Libre’: Music for theater

Theatre Diaspora and Artists Repertory Theatre productions show the power -- and limitations -- of music in theater.

As if Oregon didn’t have enough music performances in the overabundance of concerts happening onstage this fall, music is also a big part of the state’s theater scene, from currently playing musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and 42nd Street, to Portland Playhouse’s hip hop play How We Got On, a pair of musicals at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and many more — including the lavishly produced Cuba Libre at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and the bare bones staged reading of The Sound of a Voice, which concludes its two-performance run at Portland Center Stage on Saturday.

Music is the first thing we experience in Theatre Diaspora’s staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s 1983 playlet. Even before we hear the sound of a voice. Larry Tyrell takes the compact stage at the Armory’s intimate Ellyn Bye Theater and plays the bamboo Japanese flute. Along with last Saturday’s lowering clouds, the haunting shakuhachi and spare set (merely a cloth-draped folding rice paper screen and a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums) created just the right suspended, otherworldly mood for this 45-minute fable.

Given the prominence of music in this play’s plot, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hwang turned it into a short opera with music by Philip Glass, with whom he later collaborated on the science fiction chamber opera 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, the first show of his I ever saw, back in 1988. The Tony- and Obie-award winning Hwang knows from music, having co-created many operas and Broadway musicals and being most famous for a show with an obvious operatic connection, M. Butterfly.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in 'The Sound of a Voice.' Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in ‘The Sound of a Voice.’ Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

This show begins with a lone, unnamed traveler arriving at a remote forest cabin in what’s evidently pre-industrial Japan, since it’s described as a two day horse ride from the nearest village. He’s greeted by its sole inhabitant, a woman (also never named) who offers him a room for the night before he continues on his journey the next day. In the morning, she encourages him to stay longer, he helps with some chores, they get to know each other, but not too much, as he’s mysteriously evasive about his past and she doesn’t much more specific about hers. Gradually we learn that his evasion is partly motivated by deception about the real reason for his appearance. As we learn more about the pair, and they about each other, conflicts emerge, and eventually a confrontation erupts — though not just with each other, but rather with their own inner contradictions.

Music is almost a third character in Hwang’s one-act play, inspired by Japanese folk folklore and lightly directed in this reading by Samson Syharath. The solitary shakuhachi sound, appearing intermittently, reflects its lonely middle aged characters. In fact, she tells him that she learned to play the flute to console herself in the absence of real voices. If for Sartre, hell is other people, for this woman, music is other people, or at least the closest substitute, and she grows increasingly desperate for him to provide a more tangible solution to her loneliness. (Those flowers also turn out to be symbolic.) She’s also learned “male” martial skills, while he (who turns out to be a former samurai) finds himself under the shakuhachi’s spell losing his aggressive powers, and considering extending his stay. That fear — of “weakness” and loss of freedom — underlies the man’s resistance to the woman’s intensifying entreaties for him to stay. The play’s real conflict pits their respective fears — his of entrapment, hers of isolation — against their hopes. In the end, there’s no sound, of a voice, or even a flute.

Larry Tyrell played shakuhachi.

Larry Tyrell played shakuhachi.

The theme of male wariness of sacrificing freedom for security reveals The Sound of a Voice as a young man’s play. In a Skype call projected to the audience after the show, Hwang said he wrote his fifth play when he was 24, and it occasionally betrays the stiffness of an already-promising playwright still learning to handle his tools. At times, self-consciously poetic language and the sense that this is an exercise in form threatens to break our connection to the characters, even as we hope that their relationship will solidify.

Both engaging actors, Chisao Hata, Larry Toda, work hard to counteract the occasional veer into chilly, potentially pretentious formalism by bringing out their characters’ down-to-earth warmth and the humor that flecks the script. Hwang told us that his work grew less poetic and more comic as his career progressed, to the point that he now mostly writes humor, and you can already spot the first shoots of his later, more naturalistic writing. Even here, the characters’ dialogue feels more relaxed and modern than the quasi mythical setting would seem to allow. But while the otherwise appealing Toda sometimes comes off as too puppy nice to believably evoke the darker sides of his character, depriving their interaction of needed dramatic tension, Hata fully embodies her character’s contradictory depths. If the play is ever fully staged (or even read again, maybe at the splendid new Portland Japanese Garden’s new facilities, or even its current pavilion), I hope she’s part of it. And I’m looking forward to more productions by Theatre Diaspora.

David Henry Hwang appeared by Skype in post-show discussion.

David Henry Hwang appeared by Skype in post-show discussion.

The company, “committed to fiercely celebrating and creatively advocating for the Asian American/Pacific Islander experience through stage work,” is a project of the nonprofit organization MediaRites. Next season, it brings The Language Archive by Julia Cho and After the War Blues by Philip Kan Gotanda, set in a Japanese American and African American boarding house post World War II in San Francisco.

As for the playwright, in the Skype interview (an idea I’d be happy to see more theaters try), Hwang told us he’s engaged work on a couple of TV series and other projects, including a play in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American history cycle, this one involving the Philippines. (Hear David Henry Hwang talk about The Sound of a Voice and more on KBOO radio’s Stage & Studio show, hosted by MediaRites executive producer Dmae Roberts.)

As a coda to Hwang’s play, the cast contrived a brief series of readings of Japanese death poems, or jisei no ku, which they explained were brief farewells to life written by dying people (often Zen monks or haiku poets) as long ago as the 8th century and continuing into the present. Company members read a few of these deathbed declarations from across the centuries, adding background information about the writers. Accompanied by shakuhachi music, they made a sweet coda to Hwang’s musical theatrical offering.

The final performance of Theatre Diaspora’s staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice is October 25 at 7:00 p.m at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW Eleventh Avenue, Portland. Tickets are available online.

Broadway Bound?

Music also symbolizes a bigger phenomenon in Cuba Libre, the ambitious original musical now running at Portland’s Winningstad Theater in a “Broadway-scale world premiere,” as the program boasts. As the title suggests, music represents, for the leader and members of the band Tiempo Libre (whose story inspired it) freedom — liberation from the hardships and limitations caused by the US embargo of Cuba (including chronic shortages of medicine and food), authoritarian government corruption and the Soviet collapse that deprived the country of its main foreign benefactor. Like my colleague Barry Johnson, I found the music mostly compelling and the dance thrilling. If the question is whether Cuba Libre has hopes of achieving Broadway glory, the answer is “probably.” But I think that’s the wrong question.

Broadway today, after all, is known more for high-tech, high-cost glitz than for deep, gripping storytelling. Produced by Artists Repertory Theater, Cuba Libre boasts a standard of technical achievement as high as anything I’ve ever seen on Portland stage, and it’s flashy and colorful enough as is to keep the promise of a feel-good musical experience that won’t make anyone who ponied up for high priced Broadway tickets regret their purchase. In some ways, it’s the opposite of The Sound of a Voice, whose bare-bones reading and intensely narrow focus on two characters somehow touched me more than the big musical’s fireworks.

Any production so massive needs plenty of workshopping; at some point, you have to put it onstage and then see what needs tinkering, or overhauling. I pretty much agree with Barry’s take on the current version of the show, which you should read to get the full picture. But as director Damaso Rodriguez says in the Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary about the show, “When the play opens here and runs, the work won’t be done,” and because the show is still very much in development, I’d like to offer some additional feedback.

There’s much to savor: a spectacularly tight and colorful production; the clever use of “Spanglish” to underline the cross cultural mixing; the astonishing sequence of goods exchange whereby a jacket is converted commutatively into a carburetor, powdered milk and other goods and finally becomes a much needed trumpet.

German Alexander scores in the crucial and difficult lead role of Alonso (though I can imagine, say, a younger Ruben Blades there), as does Brandon Contreras in a sweet sidekick role. I wanted to see a lot more of Nick Duckart (playing Alonso’s brother Ignacio) and (perhaps through more prominent spotlighting) Julana Torres, who steals her (wordless) scenes as a stroke-muted grandmother, purely by virtue of her sly expressions.

(Center) German Alexander, Janet Dacal, (left) Xavier Mili Saint-Ives (right) Julana Torres, Jeff George in Cuba Libre. Photo credit: Owen Carey.

(Center) German Alexander, Janet Dacal, (left) Xavier Mili Saint-Ives, (right) Julana Torres, Jeff George in Cuba Libre. Photo: Owen Carey.

The real stars are the dancing (although it could have been dirtier, like the real thing) and the music (although it pretty much stays in only two moods throughout, one of them being sappy Broadway standard heartache power balladry, as in “Dime que No,” that draws little from the rich Cuban source material; compare that to Leonard Bernstein’s masterful appropriation (in the happily larcenous tradition of just about every great composer who ever lived) of Latin sounds in West Side Story. There’s a lot more to Cuban music in general and to Tiempo Libre (and timba) in particular than Cuba Libre displays, and I hope that a future incarnation of the show fully unleashes its Cuban music (and dance, for that matter) to really strut its stuff.  Still, in its current state, the show reveals that sizzling music (and dance) aren’t sufficient conditions for theatrical success, as Bernstein himself learned with Candide, which boasted some of his, and America’s, greatest music, yet never quite overcame a clunky script.

Cuban music is one of the world’s greatest cultural hybrids, brewing up one of the headiest sounds ever conceived by humans from a potent brew of African, Caribbean, indigenous American, and European influences, analogous to what happened with American jazz, but very much its own special art form. Thanks to the hapless American embargo and its own government’s repression, Cuba was partly cut off from those diverse sources of musical enrichment, just as technological and economic changes were bringing the rest of the world unprecedented global mixing and matching that has dramatically widened the ambit of musical ingredients for creators everywhere, as next week’s OneBeat show in Portland will demonstrate. (Unfortunately, the contemporary Cuban musician scheduled to appear won’t be there after all. Oh well, at least Portlanders can hear an excellent Afro Cuban jazzer, Pedrito Martinez, at Jimmy Mak’s on October 23, and we did get the farewell tour of Buena Vista Social Club’s remnants.)

I could imagine Cuba Libre dramatizing that story, of how artists won’t let politics (or for that matter overzealous academic ethnomusicologists) stop them from partaking in what the great West Coast composer Henry Cowell called “the whole world of music.” Instead, we get a snippet of a Beatles tune and a snatch of Michael Jackson, and that’s pretty much it for the story of the music in a musical that’s allegedly about musicians. The show briefly implies that hearing those modern American pop sounds transformed Tiempo Libre into a band with worldwide appeal, but we never get even a brief studio sequence of the musicians applying to the Cuban music they were playing before that Thriller-ing epiphany the beauties they glimpsed from Miami radio signals that somehow snuck through the static of government jamming.

Tiempo Libre. Photo: Elvis Suarez, GlassWorks MultiMedia.

Tiempo Libre. Photo: Elvis Suarez, GlassWorks MultiMedia.

Instead, although it’s partly based on the true stories of its band members, Cuba Libre wants to tell the story of Cuban emigrants, not Cuban music. Fair enough. But the biggest problem, as Barry notes, comes when the music stops, and we’re left with a story lacking emotional impact. Only at the end is it explained (in one of those end of show tie up scenes that hurriedly try to substitute exposition for actual dramatization) that Alonso’s longing for his Cuban homeland prevents him from fully connecting with his new life (and — badly underwritten — lover) in America.

That’s a classic emigre story that’s been told often but is at least as relevant as ever. But we never really see that conflict played out onstage; it’s merely told to us at the end of the show, instead of clearly set up through action scenes (in the musical’s ill-conceived framing flashbacks) with his American manager/lover so that their climactic scene has emotional impact. Worse, for all his inveigling and dealing, in the show’s most vital action, Alonso is a passive figure; we never really see him given a good reason not to leave Cuba, nor actually wrestle with that decision; instead, he’s acted upon, his big choice made for him by his Cuban girlfriend. So we don’t really feel the anguish of his having to choose between his present and his future, only a brief, belated wisp of regret toward the end of the show, far too late. That sequence of events might be true to the band’s actual history, but, at least as scripted here, doesn’t make me care enough about Alonso’s story, especially the present-day part. Like Alonso himself, Cuba Libre‘s heart seems to be in his Cuban past (thanks to some resonant scenes involving him and his girlfriend, a Cuban physician) rather than his American present.

Overhauling the script during tryouts in the provinces is a Broadway tradition, and Cuba Libre already has the advantage of sharp direction and choreography, spiffy design and projections, exhilarating dancing, incendiary music and, crucially, crack timing: a musical about Cuban emigres to America arriving at a time when emigration is the hottest national political topic and the President has finally begun normalizing relations with Cuba. As Michael Jackson sings in the song that changed the band, Cuba Libre wants to be starting something, but it’s got a long way to go to be as dramatically satisfying as it is musically, visually, and choreographically — in some ways close, but so far, no cigar, Cuban or otherwise. Still, with its pulsating score, electrifying dance and timely story, Cuba Libre is probably already approaching Broadway glitz. But it could be so much more.

Cuba Libre continues at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, through November 15. 

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One Response.

  1. Chisao Hata says:

    Thank you Brett Campbell for your writing and support for the work we are doing. I so greatly appreciate you.
    Keep going keep the arts in our lives and our schools!!!!!
    Chisao Hata
    Theatre Diaspora
    Founding member
    Educator, artist, activist

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