Growing Pains: Voices of the South stages "The Awakening"

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It's nice to have a glass of wine at intermission. But halfway through The Awakening a tall espresso would have been more helpful. 

In theory, this show sounds like an exciting proposition. More than that, an ambitious adaptation of Kate Chopin's seminal 19th-Century proto-feminist novel sounds like a perfect fit for Voices of the South, the innovative theater troupe known for its colorful collage of Southern musical and literary traditions. Only this time around there's not much color. Everything in director Swaine Kaui's staging is rendered literally, and figuratively, in a monochromatic scale of dirty white. Strangled by artifice, the adapted script links chunky narrative passages with more traditional scene work and incongruent bits of musical theater. It wants to be as bold and modern as Chopin's story was when it was first published in 1899. But the story's characters and human conflict are as poorly defined as the play's formal elements are shapeless, bloodless and interminable. 

Pretty is as pretty does and prettiness is often the only thing this Awakening has going for it. Lyrical dance-like sequences employing large strips of light-reactive fabric are lovely to look at. But we've seen Voices do this sort of thing a little too often now. And how much nicer might it all have been if the ghostly imagery was accompanied by a developed character or any relationship at all.

There's no heat between cast members. Imitated voices of parrots and children are accidentally funny. Actors pronounce their lines, and project their lines, and recite their lines and make great whooshing noises that are accompanied by great whooshing movements to indicate some great universal  whooshing, and throw themselves body and soul into a deep dark ocean of mix-and-match theatrical conceits. But it's a rare moment when anybody successfully communicates with the audience or with each other.

Anne Marie Caskey in The Awakening
  • Anne Marie Caskey in The Awakening

The adaptation's musical interludes are unmotivated. They feel tacked on, lacking meaningful context even in a story that's steeped in song.

VOTS co-founder Alice Berry plays Chopin's groundbreaking protagonist Edna Pontellier, who experiences artistic and sexual awakenings while vacationing in Grand Isle, LA with her husband, LĂ©once. I've watched Berry grow as an artistic force since we were both students at the U of M in the 1990's. She's sensitive, smart, and driven to hard work with a natural born fierceness and real knack for developing complicated gimmick-free characters, unsullied by judgement or ostentation. She's one of my very favorite area performers and this is the kind of role she should own. But somehow Berry never connects with Edna. And nobody on stage connects with her or with anybody else. It's like watching a cast of somnambulists, but never quite as exciting. Ink on a page has more life. And possibly more dimension.

Maybe it's not that bad. Maybe I caught an especially flat show. But Voices of the South has set a high standard and expectations were set accordingly. This is exactly the sort of thing this mature company usually does very well. And when it flirts with self-parody, I have to wonder what the hell went wrong.


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