Thursday, January 27, 2005

Big River

Over the past decade or two, we have become more accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at rallies, theatrical productions, on television, perhaps a rock concert...anything that helps the Deaf person to enjoy the event. I have long admired the skill of these people who can bring an appreciation of music to those who have never heard a note.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most commonly used languages in the United
States, other than English. It is the most popular foreign language study for students in colleges and universities across the country. Some schools offer bilingual education in ASL and English.

The Tony award-winning production of “Big River,” adapted from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by writer William Hauptman and the late country music songwriter Roger Miller, and under the direction of Jeff Calhoun, is at the Sacramento Community Theater for two weeks, through February 6th.

This production is presented by The Deaf West Theater and its cast includes deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in a fascinating new art form which combines speaking, signing, gesture, song and dance. The lead roles are taken by both Deaf and hearing actors, the lines and singing for the Deaf actors being done by speaking actors while the Deaf actor is the actual performer. So seamless is the combination of non-speaking actors and their speaking counterparts that it was near the end of Act 1 before I realized that the speaking actors were actually on the stage, and woven into the action itself.

The play is opened by Mark Twain (Adam Monley), who explains that this is a performance of his story, that should not be construed to have any message or hidden meaning whatsoever.

The stage is set with large pieces, all of which are representations of pages from Twain’s story, some bound and others free, out of which the characters step to start the action.The scenic design by Ray Klausen uses these book pages in ingenious ways, with characters popping out of holes, stepping through doors, peeking in windows, etc., and, when the pages are folded, using them as a raft. The book literally “comes to life” on the stage.

Mark Twain, who acts as narrator and the voice of Huckleberry Finn, is a fine performance by Adam Monley, who is even able to sing lying flat on his back--a challenge for any singer! The multi-talented Monley also plays the guitar, banjo and harmonica at various times throughout the evening.

Finn himself is an animated, impish, delightful performance by Tyrone Giordano, with his pal Jim, the runaway slave played by Michael McElroy, so graceful in his signing as to be poetry in motion. McElroy and Giordano have one of the more beautiful moments in the show when they sing the duet, “Worlds Apart,” which sadly points out that although they have many things in common, their color separates them from one another. In a way, this song also parallels the separation of the hearing world from the non-hearing world.

(In truth, there were moments throughout the evening that I wished I had the ability to understand American Sign Language as some of the scenes, whether because speed of delivery or poor enunciation, were difficult to understand. Foremost among those is a scene with Pap, Finn’s father, Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine (one is the mirror image of the other, one speaks for the other), whose entire scene was quite difficult to understand.

While the story centers around Finn and Jim, there are a large number of characters who pass briefly through the lives of the two, including the unscrupulous duo of Duke (the signing Troy Kotsur and the speaking James Judy) and King (Eric Devine), the sweet Mary Jane Wilkes (Melissa Van Der Schyff), who has an eye for Huck, and Tom Sawyer (Benjamin Schrader), in a surprisingly brief appearance.

However, the strength of this production is the energy coming from a stage full of people, all performing perfectly synchronized American Sign Language gestures while singing the show’s songs. “The Royal Nonesuch” and “Waiting for the Sun to Shine” are perfect examples of the excitement that these choreographed numbers can create.

This is a production the likes of which you probably have never seen before and one hopes it’s the start of a whole new theatrical art form.

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