Saturday, October 17, 2015

Broadway awakens to the Deaf community

There’s nothing on Broadway like Deaf West Theater’s Spring Awakening. The production is accessible to both the hearing and Deaf communities and it plays out so beautiful that you start to wonder why it has taken so long for a production with that translation to reach the big stage. Director Michael Aren and the rest of the creative team ensured that every moment in the musical was bilingual. Not every person on stage speaks and not all sign, but with a few theatrical devices well used the entire audience was on the same page.

The story in Spring Awakening takes place in Berlin 1891 while the score and costumes of the on-stage musical ensemble are inspired by rock and punk. Two characters were paired with musicians from the band who play their voice. Wendla, played by Sandra Mae Frank, was paired with guitarist Katie Boeck and Moritz, played by Daniel N. Durant, was paired with Alex Boniello. Each couple had a touching symbiosis that highlighted the character’s loneliness and isolation. They were completely attuned and synched in body and voice, so by the end of the show I almost forgot that Wendla never spoke out loud. Even better, because the people who played the voices were also in the band this brought the music to life in a different, visceral way than you’ll usually feel during musical theater.  
The rest of the cast signed or spoke to and for each other. Cleverly placed projections by Lucy Mackinnon filled in the rest of the interpretations. While the intersection of the hearing and the Deaf wasn’t the crux of the story, which investigates the fates of 13-year-olds whose discovery of sexuality leads to their downfall, the interplay heightened the circumstances. These kids, wronged by what lead Melchior, played by Austin P. McKenzie, called the “parentocracy” were clinging on onto each other as the unforgiving world decided their fates for them.

There is ample space for productions accessible to the Deaf community to be successful on Broadway. It only takes a bit of imagination to get them there.