nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 20, 2010
Sounding is the kind of visceral, exciting theatre experience that defies genre or label: this new work from Jennifer Gibbs, Kristin Marting, and Kamala Sankaram blends elements from many areas of performance into something full of life and invention. It's a captivating work, brimming with energy, and I urge you to sample it. Whether you like Rent or Spring Awakening or the works of Ibsen and Chekhov or the theatre experiments you often find at Sounding's home at HERE Arts Center, there's something here for you.
The story of Sounding revolves around Leda, a once-famous rock star who walked away from her career about five years ago and now lives in a remote town by the sea on Cape Cod. Here she is the second wife of a psychiatrist named Walters; his two daughters, aged about 17 and 22, have not fully gotten over the loss of their mother and their relations with Leda are cool even as Walters' ardor is hot. Complicating the family circle are two men from outside—Eamon, a former student of Walters, who was the older daughter Charlotte's tutor some years back and who has been invited back for a visit; and Josh, a budding filmmaker whom the younger daughter Hilda has a crush on. Eamon was once Leda's lover and Josh remains her devoted fan, which makes matters even more complex and conflicted. And meanwhile Leda thinks she is hearing, even seeing, the mysterious man called The Stranger who had once been inextricably linked with her music...
Sounding is ultimately about Leda's rediscovery of her voice, literally and figuratively; but Gibbs's script is more complicated than that description suggests. Though Gibbs's stated inspiration here is Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea—its basic plot and structure are shared by Sounding—the 19th century theatre influence I felt most keenly was Chekhov: Leda's way toward herself isn't so much affected by the various plottings and pairings of the people around her than it is interrupted by them. Everyone's self-involvement, and the leisurely manner in which Gibbs and her collaborators stop to hear these secondary characters out from time to time, gives the piece a fullness and epic quality that it wouldn't have if it stayed focused on Leda alone.
Marting's direction of Sounding is masterful. She's using the mainstage space at HERE beautifully, staging the play along the room's diagonal so that the audience watches a broad and constantly shifting panorama that always takes in at least two simultaneous scenes (and sometimes more). Video, designed by Tal Varden, is integrated throughout, sometimes providing a backdrop and sometimes providing a perspective on what a particular character (usually Leda) is seeing. The set, by Nick Vaughan, uses a curtain and a few props to suggest the various locations around Leda's home and inside her head; Rie Ono's lighting pulls the live and prerecorded visuals together seamlessly. Jane Shaw's sound is dazzling, conjuring a crowded stadium or a lonely beach with its suggestive use of music and sound; there were times when I almost thought Marting was using smell-o-vision, so richly was the sea air evoked by the sounds of gulls and crashing waves.
The six-member ensemble do fine work, led by Okwui Okpokwasili as Leda in a remarkable marathon performance that requires her to make us believe she is a rock star as well as a questing, vulnerable woman. Irene Longshore and Ana Kayne are excellent as the daughters, both showing us that these young women are more interested in stepping out into themselves than in fretting over being in their stepmother's shadow. Michael Pemberton (Walters), Rudy Mungaray (Eamon), and Stephen Reyes (Josh) likewise deliver exceptional performances as the three very different men circling around the women.
The musical component of Sounding is provided by composer Sankaram and performed by Okpokwasili—a selection of potent songs that help us understand what Leda has lost and her ambivalence about regaining it. Live musical accompaniment would really energize these segments; maybe that's something contemplated to augment this show if and when it heads onto its next stage of development.
Two things about the presentation confused me. One—and this may be a bit of a spoiler, sorry—is that Todd D'Amour as The Stranger is given prominent billing in the program even though he only appears on video; maybe I was supposed to be waiting for him to materialize on stage, but once I realized he wasn't going to, I felt that I'd been distracting myself from more important matters. The other is that the blurbs for Sounding use phrases like "cross-disciplinary production synthesizing original dialogue, music, and lyrics with cinematic video" to describe the piece; this kind of jargon-y language sells the show short. The ovation it received on opening night, which sounded more like what a crowd does at a rock concert than what a theatre audience does even at its most feverish, attests to how non-academic this show is. So let's just call Sounding a thrilling and innovative new work of theatre, and leave it at that.