Play gets stylish treatment On AXIS stage, 'Sound of a Voice' is poetry in motion.

July 12, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Anyone familiar with David Henry Hwang's most famous play, "M. Butterfly," knows he is fascinated by the differences between men and women.

That fascination surfaced early in his work and is central to his 1983 one-act play, "Sound of a Voice," which is receiving a sensitive and stylish local premiere at AXIS Theatre.

But merely examining the chasm between men and women isn't sufficient for Hwang. He throws in other complex variables. In "M. Butterfly," the added complication is that the female lead turns out to be a man. In the two-person "Sound of a Voice" it's the possibility that the woman is a witch.

The relatively simple story concerns a Japanese warrior who visits a beautiful woman living alone in the woods. Her existence is so solitary, she yearns for the sound of another human voice.

"I don't consider time when there is no voice in the air. It's pointless," she tells him. "Time begins with the entrance of a visitor and ends with his exit."

In keeping with the minimalist feel of the play -- in which speech itself becomes a type of character, gently challenging the silence -- director Gil Given has staged the action with appropriate restraint.

The result imbues Hwang's sparse dialogue with the elegance of haiku poetry. Similarly, the movements of actors Joel Mason and Binnie Ritchie-Holum have the fluidity of dance -- both Mason's battle exercises, which he choreographed, and Ritchie-Holum's graceful gestures and moves, which I suspect she influenced since she is a trained dancer and choreographer.

Even the abstract set -- designed by the director, lighted by Ginger Angstadt and featuring thin, illuminated yellow poles that represent the forest -- suggests the austere beauty of Japanese floral arrangements.

This reference to flowers is deliberate. Ritchie-Holum's character has a collection of cut flowers that she mysteriously has kept alive and thriving for indeterminate amounts of time. She claims the flowers are well-cared-for gifts from previous visitors, but Mason's character suspects something more sinister.

The pair's suspicions about each other -- his that she is a witch, hers that he will abandon her -- are at the core of this 50-minute playlet.

And, as in "M. Butterfly," the characters are eventually undone by their inability and unwillingness to even attempt to reach a genuine understanding.

"Sound of a Voice" inaugurates a new summer program at AXIS with the related title "Other Voices." Aimed at showcasing plays by women and people of color, the program is off to a promising start with this lovely production.

I suspect, however, that playwright Hwang might question one aspect of the production.

Because he spurred a major controversy six years ago by protesting the casting of a Caucasian actor in a starring Eurasian role in "Miss Saigon," he'd probably take exception to AXIS' casting Caucasian actors as Japanese characters in "Sound of a Voice."

Without reproaching Mason and Ritchie-Holum for their fine performances -- or the admirable practice of color-blind casting -- it's an issue AXIS might consider in light of the agenda of "Other Voices."

'Sound of a Voice'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through July 28

0$ Tickets: $7 Call: (410) 243-5237

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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