As late as the 1930s, people were flummoxed by telephones. The idea that you could carry on some kind of earth-shattering conversation with someone and not be in the same room seemed surreal, and might belong in the same category as, say, communicating with the dead through a medium. In his 1930 play La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice), French dramatist Jean Cocteau depicted what must have been the most tense telephone conversation he could think of: a breakup. Except that Cocteau structured the play as a monologue, so you only get one side of the story. La Voix Humaine depicts a woman struggling to keep her lover on the line, even though she knows they're through. Though her lover never materializes, the woman grows increasingly rattled over the course of the play, as though she's trying to force a sense of intimacy that no longer exists. You get a sense not only of the futility of her actions, but of the disconnect between her reality and the reality of her situation.
Local director Anne Novak, who's staging the Antares Ensemble production of The Human Voice at the Berkeley City Club, said that Cocteau actually wrote the play for French chanteuse Edith Piaf (it's referenced in one scrap of dialogue from La Vie en Rose). It was the first solo piece ever performed, she claimed, so critics didn't know what to make of it. Initially an object of derision, The Human Voice nonetheless inspired many spin-off versions, including the 1959 opera by Francis Poulenc. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar based scenes from his comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on the Cocteau play, in that the lead character Pepa Marcos (played by Carmen Maura) is constantly on the phone with her boyfriend. For her own adaptation, Novak wanted to make the lover's voice come across, even though the audience never hears him. She and the lead actress Shruti Tewari spent a lot of time hanging out together and writing an imaginary script for him, to give the illusion of a dialogue. Still, there's obviously a rift between them: She's constantly trying to win him back, but he's getting married in the morning. At one point, she finally concedes that "with this machine, what's finished gets finished."
When Cocteau wrote this play back in the day, people were still using operators to connect to each other, and everything was slower. "So there's this sense of intimacy because you're hearing the person's voice, but there's also an aspect of distance," Novak said. She thinks The Human Voice will resonate with a modern audience because our own communication devices — cell phones, Blackberries, instant messaging, chat rooms, etc. — create a lot of false intimacy. In the old days, said Novak, "you could conveniently hang up when the talk got heavy. Just like in our world, you know, the call drops." The Human Voice runs Friday, November 23 ( 8 p.m.), Saturday, November 24 (2 p.m. & 8 p.m.), and Sunday, November 25 ( 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.). Tickets cost $10-20 and benefit the American Concert Association's scholarship fund. AntaresEnsemble.org
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