The solo show has become a staple of the theater scene, overlapping into film and TV, ever since Emlyn Williams, Hal Holbrook, James Whitmore and Julie Harris took the stage in the ’50s and ‘60s to play Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Will Rogers (et al!) and Emily Dickinson.
But these pioneering shows, of character actors impersonating historical figures soliloquizing before or speaking to an audience, have an even more theatrical predecessor—Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice (1930), revived by Antares Ensemble this weekend at the Berkeley City Club, in which an unnamed woman talks to her lover on the phone, maybe for the last time, in a sometimes playful, sometimes desperate game to keep that voice (unheard by the audience) on the line, her hopes and illusions alive.
According to Angelique Devoine, Antares’ Parisienne dramaturge for this production, Cocteau wrote The Human Voice for his close friend, the great chanteuse Edith Piaf, whom Devoine knew. Piaf, alas, never played the role, but over the decades since it premiered at the Comedie Francaise, it’s been done by Ingrid Bergman (both on film and record), Simone Signoret, Anna Magnani, Carmen Mora and Liv Ullmann.
Cocteau’s play also has the distinction of inspiring composer Francis Poulenc’s last opera.
It’s an emotional tour-de-force, but also a carefully and cleverly crafted piece of theatrical art, not a banal slice of life with a technological prop or a one-woman soap opera. As she waits for the call, speaks with charm, ingratiatingly or with anguish to her unseen, unheard lover, the audience can see the expression on her face contradict her voice, catch the funny and touching mannerisms that can’t be broken down into electric impulses and sent over the wire.
Antares, a Berkeley-based company, has introduced a new wrinkle with the performance of Shruti Tewari as the forlorn woman on the phone. Best known in the South Bay, where she notably appeared in TheatreWorks’ Baby Taj, Tewari was in Golden Thread’s Island of Animals in Fremont last year. She has also performed classical dance here and in her native India. Tewari’s performance in The Human Voice—as seen at a house performance last year—goes beyond both ethnic typecasting and “non-traditional casting” in her creation, under the direction of Antares’ founder Anne Novak, by adding to the cosmopolitan character of the woman, stylizing mannerisms from Tewari’s own background, even adding some endearments in Urdu.
Novak, who studied theater at the Cours Florent in Paris, and Tewari were both enthusiastic about the fusion of a French play performed by an Indian-American actress; their enthusiasm spills over into the many details, the emotional color and the unexpected humor of Cocteau’s little masterpiece. Tewari splendidly alternates and blends melancholy and playfulness, bringing out the theatricality of life itself, as the woman effectively stages her own tragedy with her hopes and fears, sometimes reminiscent of the piquant tone, the charm—the delicious agony of the ghazal, love song of Moghul India, still enormously popular today.
The show runs for five performances, Friday through Sunday, as a benefit for the American Concert Association Scholar-ship Fund. It’s the perfect chamber play for the theater salon in the venerable, Julia Morgan-designed City Club. Tewari’s character could easily have lived in such a mansion—or, rare bird that she is, sung in such a gilded cage, over the instrument of the technological age which first transmitted the private conversations of the home over distances and into public space.
Jean Cocteau, collaborator and friend to Picasso and Stravinsky, to Massine and CoCo Chanel, is probably best known in America for his film of Beauty and the Beast. In his greatest film, Orpheus, Cocteau’s conceit had the inspiration for surreal poetry come over a car radio in the voice of a dead young poet. He called his sped-up adaptation of Antigone “an aerial photograph of the Parthenon.” With The Human Voice, written originally for the star of the gramophone, the conceit is the reverse: the secrets of the heart spilling out in what at first seems just banal chatter, overhearing one side of a phone call.