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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Sotto Voce

I can't believe how this is happening again. — Bernadette
Socco Voce
Annette Miller
Nine hundred and thirty-seven Jewish refugees believed that they had sailed to freedom on the MS St. Louis in 1939. They left Hamburg, Germany and everything they knew behind in order to escape the nightmare of Nazi domination. Cuba was their destination, but they dreamt of entering the United States. However, only twenty-two passengers had the necessary documents to disembark to Cuba. To their shock, first Cuba and then the U.S. and Canada refused them a safe haven. When the ship inevitably returned to Europe their fate became part of a terrible history that continues to haunt the world in ever widening circles.

This is the tragedy that informs Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz's play Sotto Voce, a story about the pain of loss and a grief which does not subside. Three characters act out the early 21st century drama currently at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne Bernstein Theatre. Bernadette Kahn (Annette Miller) is a reclusive German-born author. Living in New York City, the eighty-year-old is still a force to be reckoned with as is her feisty Colombian housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (Evelyn Howe.) Both women appear externally strong while hiding the vulnerabilities and sadness of past lives. Lucila, a refugee from Colombia, and Bernadette, from defeated Nazi Germany, instinctively understand the need for sanctuary.

Lucila cares for her famous, agoraphobic employer and guards her from outside intrusions. They drink afternoon coffee together and it is Lucila who acts as gatekeeper to Bernadette's life. Bernadette has never transcended the loss of her young lover Ariel Strauss, who, along with his sister Nina, was trapped on the doomed St. Louis. After he left port, Bernadette discovered that Strauss' fare had been paid by her father to protect her from a politically dangerous relationship. Bernadette only felt more deeply, as only the young can, and bound her heart and soul to Ariel's fate as a Jew. She became an author, turned her back on her homeland and hid from the world pouring her emotions into her novels.

All of the pent-up feelings emerge as a Cuban-Jewish researcher and student Saquiel Rafaeli (Jaime Carrillo) begins to opportune Bernadette with a passion that borders on obsession. Saquiel insists that he has her letters written to Ariel during their youthful love affair kept by his relatives all these years. How he came to be in possession of them is unclear. He stands outside her apartment, phones continuously, and sends flowers until she finally agrees to speak to him – only by phone and email. He also romances Lucila—for access to Bernadette or because of Lucila herself, a question which remains unanswered.

Through a dreamlike distance, this unlikely couple, Bernadette and Saquiel, begin a virtual tour of New York. Gradually it seems as if Ariel has returned to her life to live out all that was denied through the horrors of the past.

The play is set in Bernadette's upscale apartment designed by John McDermott which allows for fluidity of movement to other imagined sites and times. Mostly it is the place where Bernadette lives in her memories of what was and dreams of what might have been. Atmospheric lighting by Robyn Warfield moves the story from present to past and imaginary forays into the outside world.

This is a moody play which relies on poetry rather than action. It celebrates lost love in an idealized romantic narrative and its melodramatic underpinnings cry out for judicious cutting. The three actors directed by Daniel Gidron bring the story of Bernadette and Ariel to life through a combination of poetically painful monologues, intense though repetitious dialogue, and fantasy dancing sequences. With its little action and reliance on personal narrative to move towards an ambiguous ending, Sotto Voce, like all soft voices, requires an ability to attend to the subtext of human desire.

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Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Daniel Gidron
Cast: Jaime Carrillo (Saquiel Rafaeli) Evelyn Howe (Lucila Pulpo, Nina Strauss) Annette Miller (Bernadette Kahn)
Scene design: John McDermott
Lighting design: Robyn Warfield
Costume design: Deborah A. Brothers
Sound design and original music: Brad Berridge
Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein
Running Time: Ninety Minutes; one intermission
Shakespeare & Company, Elayne Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA From 8/18/16; closing 9/11/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at August 31 performance

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