The opening of the Bilingual ASL-spoken English production of A Midummer Night’s Dream made theatrical history last Saturday at 12th Ave Arts. In my humble opinion, this co-production of Sound Theater Company and Deaf Spotlight will be seen by future theater historians as the beginning of a major theatrical innovation.
One of the signs of creative genius is that a creative genius invents or discovers something that the rest of us mere mortals never thought of before, but their idea hits us like a thunderbolt. We realize that their idea was sooooo right-on and wonder why no one else thought of it before. That was my reaction to this enthralling production, co-directed by STC’s Artistic Director, Teresa Thuman and Deaf Spotlight powerhouse, Howie Seagal.
By using sign language, a different method of communication, along with the spoken word, the directors noticed and enhanced something already present in the text; that communication between the “fairy world” and the “mortal ”world was fraught with miscommunication, mischief and mystery.
Although it is not always clear to audiences in theatres (the movies can make this clearer)the fairies, Oberon, Titania, Puck etc. are not supposed to be visible to the mortals. That is to say one set of creatures has a sensory impairment and cannot use that sense, i.e. the visual sense, to perceive the others. In this production, a different sense was lacking, so one set of creatures could not aurally sense the others. So, signing was used to communicate secretly, and speaking actors interpreted for them to the audience, and vice versa. Rather than be confusing or like subtitles, the signing, which was incredibly physically expressive, added another dimension of communication. It also created a parallel situation in another dimension, to what was already in the text. In addition, it was just so much fun to watch.
The reason is that ASL does not just use the hands, or finger spelling to communicate, but uses facial expressions and body postures. For example, to ask a question, signers raise their eyebrows, something a hearing person might do to question something, when they didn’t want to use words but want to express doubt, in a very nuanced manner with a multi-leveled sub-text. These highly experienced signing actors took these sub-textural nuances to stratospheric levels.
As a result, there was a lot of enchanting visual onomatopoeia, where the physical gestures and body language “spoke volumes” just as effectively as Shakespeare’s language. The technical term is iconicity, meaning that, although sign language is not a form a pantomime, there can be a similarity or analogy between the form of a sign and its meaning. e.g. pointing to the forehead means “mind,” pointing to the heart is the word for heart. N.B. These same gestures are used very often by the hearing community, while speaking or to communicate without speaking.
The sheer ability of the signing actors to express themselves physically through signing and body language can only be described by every superlative in the dictionary, ( too numerous to list). Their performances were uproariously funny and the mysteriousness created by having speaking actors interpret their signs on or off stage expressed the other-wordliness of the play.
Some of the standouts in the cast were Guthrie Nutter as the First Fairy, who did the signing interpretation for Oberon. With a dancer’s/mime’s body and facial expressions to match, he captivated the audience every time he moved even so much as an eyelash. Thawin Choulphan, double cast as Egeus and Robin Starveling, , as the angry father of the woman who rejects an arranged marriage. As Bottom, one couldn’t have asked for anything better from Ryan Schlecht’s performance.
One thing that made this performance excellent was that all the speaking interpreters had magnificent voices and spoke “trippingly on the tongue.” Particularly Jessica Kiely, Carolyn Marie Monroe and above all that basso profundo-Michael D. Blum, who played Oberon and interpreted for Theseus. Kathy Hsieh, as Titania and Hipppolyte’s interpreter, had all the exoticism of a fairy, aided by an exquisite costume. Catherine Kettrick’s performance as Snout, was just plain adorable and she was effective as the hearing interpreter for the mechanicals.
On a directorial note, Thuman and Seagal made all the right decisions starting with a simple multi-layered set, which separated the actors from their interpreters, with clarity. The plain black backdrop, with some white streamers, did not distract the audience, so that our focus was always on the visual communication of the signing actors, and showed off the stunningly beautiful colorful costumes by Margaret Toomey, Kat Henwood and Jenny Ku.
Lighting Designer, Richard Schaefer, captured the mystery of the forest, while creating a lot of visual beauty. Michael Owecharu’s endearing original compositions served the production well, as did changing the styles of music, when the play moved from the fairy world to that of the mortals. As in all Dream productions there were a lot of dance numbers, expertly choreographed by Lee Ann Hittenberger.
If you can only see one show this year, let it be this one. I have not seen anything in a long time, which has interested me as much as this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When it becomes famous (and notice my choice of “when” not “if” ) you’ll be able to say that you saw it, when it premiered in a small neighborhood theatre in Seattle
A Midsummer Night’s Dream A Bilingual ASL Spoken English Translated by Howie Seago, Co directed by Thereas Thuman and Howie Seago. Deaf Spotlight & Sound Theatre Company. 12th Ave Arts. 1620-12th Ave Seattle, 98112 (12th Ave and Pine-Capitol Hill) Thur. Fri. Sat. 8 pm. Sun 2 pm. Until May 12th. Info: https://www.artful.ly/sound-theatre-company–1/store/events/14168
No Parking, close to Sound Transit.