Review: Theater Emory's _A Human Voice_

February 5, 2021

ATLANTA - From the cold, blue glow of your laptop screen, Theater Emory invites you to stream A Human Voice, an English adaptation of La Voix Humaine (1928) by Jean Cocteau. The original monodrama by Cocteau features a young woman on the phone for around 60 minutes, talking to her ex-lover who will marry another woman the next day.

            Theater Emory’s English translation was adapted and directed by Michael Evenden, starring actor and Emory College student Willis Hao. This rendition refreshed the 100 year old play with some different presentation methods, but the themes stayed similar. The despair of a young and abandoned lover, the desperation to connect and be comforted through technology are still successfully conveyed through a virtual experience while delivered by a male lead.

            Video chatting replaces the original telephone prop in this piece – both for how the actor communicates with his lover and how the audience witnesses the show. Born of the pandemic, virtual theater is more a necessary response than a sought-after artistic choice. However, Theater Emory used it to their advantage in this piece. As the character uses Zoom, he is plagued by weak connections and cut-offs. These are things we have all experienced in our own Zoom meetings. We relate to the frustration and confusion of technology failing where human connection should be.

            Because the character spends his time talking over Zoom, the audience feels like they are in on the call. Here, the solo performance format thrives. Alone at your laptop, you receive the full force of Hao’s character work. The young man speaks to only you, and only you can hold this space for him.

            At one point, the young man is so overcome by his emotions that he turns off the camera. While this must be a novel stage direction to the adaptation, it serves the piece well. In person, silence becomes an actor’s tool to build tension. Virtually, silence could mean the person is frozen with a spotty connection. Turning off the camera instead builds the right kind of tension for viewers. We can only imagine what happens behind closed doors, or in this case, behind muted cameras.

            Zooming the former lover does add new layers to the emotional performance of the work. It clearly increased the difficulty for the actor. Now he must not only perform as the character, but also perform as the character performing through video for the ex-lover.

            At the beginning of the piece, performing for the camera felt slightly awkward for Hao. He was still adjusting to finding his audience through the lens, but as the play went on, he successfully brought this character to life. Hao was meant for this role with heartbreaking fake smiles crumbling into despair and excellent portrayals of the character’s inner emotional world.

            A Human Voice is not a play of joy. Over the course of the play, the young man is swallowed by despair. He lies. He begs. He contemplates suicide. It is an honest depiction of the first real heartbreak in a young person’s life. The ensuing depression leads to isolation, sleeplessness, and clinging to what once was. When he mentions sleeping with the laptop, we see the metaphor for what he has left of connection – to his lover and to his life. This is something we all can relate to these days, as we stay inside our homes and only connect virtually to those we love.

            Despite all of the despair and depression, we are left thinking the young man will make it through. While this reviewer cannot pinpoint the moment of salvation in the play, it is perhaps even more poignant for the times we live in. We must have hope, whether the evidence for it is apparent or not.

            This reviewer would like to leave warning of one event during the performance. A 5 second video abruptly appears in the middle of the play, with mysterious, violent, and dreadful visual and audio. The sudden change from the young man to this frightening video was shocking. While the video might serve to reflect the internal feelings of the character in an avant-garde way, there should be a warning of violence for audience members.

            Overall, this adaptation is highly recommended for viewing. It feels appropriate for the current climate -- particularly because it reminds us that when we feel alone, we are not alone in those feelings. Here is a link to some mental health resources for those struggling.

**

This adaptation is available for viewing on Vimeo until February 6, 2021. It runs in tandem with a French version performed by Dominique Davillé, adapted and directed by Donald McManus. Watch both versions here.

**

This review was written by a student for the new virtual zine Conversations with Eggs. Conversations with Eggs is operated by Emory Arts and some frighteningly smart students. It releases rolling reviews and critiques of art "stuff" by the Emory community and annually releases one themed volume of creative work. Its formal website will be launched in March.