Monday, September 28, 2015

ASL Awakenings

Saturday evening found us leaving the kids at home with a babysitter, picking up my friend Miss D, who is deaf, and heading into the city to see a Broadway show.  Our destination:  Marlee Matlin, Camryn Manheim, and Spring Awakening.  One-time Tony-award-winning best musical starring a pre-"Glee" Lea Michele, the show has been revived by Deaf West with both deaf and hearing actors.

And it is AMAZING!  (Insert my doing the ASL sign for "amazing" here.)

It was touch and go for awhile.  Roads were closed all throughout midtown and cops were everywhere, even though the pope had left Saturday morning.  But, the UN has its General Assembly now and they must all be staying at the Waldorf!  Then there was a street festival up and down 6th.  Took more than 2 hours to get to the parking lot, what should barely have taken 1 1/2.  But Mama and I pad time schedules and we still had enough time to have a delightful dinner at Sapporo, on 49th, the kids' favorite.  Katsu, curry, miso soup, Japanese potato salad.  We knew better to have soupy Ramen before a Broadway show.  Especially because there are never enough restrooms.

We got to the theater with plenty of time to spare and were swarmed by drama students from a local program--one of their alumni was in the show.  But, as far as we could tell, there were no other Deaf people in the audience.  My friend, who uses ASL as well as read lips and talks, definitely kept her eyes peeled.  She did know someone:  she had gone to camp in elementary school with one of the Deaf cast members!  Small world.

Mama got us great seats, front row mezzanine on the aisle, so we had a totally unobstructed view.  I had really looked forward to the production; we had loved Deaf West's production of Big River more than a decade ago and I still can sign to some of the songs.  As soon as they announced they were coming east again, I wanted to go (they regularly do shows in LA, but don't often come to NYC.)  And then Oscar-winning Marlee Matlin joined the cast.  Sis and I watch her in "Switched at Birth" every week and I have enjoyed her in other shows ("West Wing," "L Word," and of course Children of a Lesser God.)  I knew other actors, too--Daniel Durant from "Switched at Birth" and Ali Stroker from "Glee Project" (and the first person in a wheelchair to be on Broadway!)  And then Camryn Manheim, who is fluent in ASL, joined the show.   My friend, who had never seen a Broadway show, was similarly excited to go, so we began making all the arrangements.

What a wonderful evening!  I hadn't seen Spring Awakening before.  As Mama summarized it,  the story is about "horny 19th-century German teenagers who have trouble communicating with their parents, make some mistakes, and suffer permanently for them."  Sex, abortion, suicide, molestation, child abuse, S&M, gays, prostitutes.  It's not a show for little kids.  The music is modern, though, very rock.  In fact, you might say, it was Rent for Millennials, in the same vein as Once:  the musical embraced by a generation feeling marginalized.  I'm not of this young generation and so I could both understand the teenagers and their parents.  That miscommunication was the major theme of the show  with dual communication systems being its central device strengthened the power of both.

The show is beautiful, powerful, mesmerizing.  Some characters were played by Deaf performers, some by hearing.  Some characters--like Wendla and Melchior--have one of each, the Deaf character and his or her Voice (Mama recognized the parallels of the costumes of the pairs.)  The use of doubles was more subtle than in Big River, especially the way the Voice almost seemed to be the inner voice talking to the character sometimes, instead of two separate people standing side by side. All the actors signed, both Deaf and hearing.  In fact, as my friend noted, the only way you could sometimes tell was that only the hearing actors were wired with head mics.  I loved seeing Marlee Matlin in person, even though her role was smaller.  Even I could tell that her signing (aka acting) as Frau Gabor was totally different from her role as Melody on "Switched"--tighter, more precise, closer to her body, while Melody signs more fluidly, with more pauses for connection with her listener.  And Camryn Manheim was fabulous!  I loved her signing and her acting and even her purple costume.

Visually, it was very striking--light changes and pulses (and these weird electric-point glow-in-the-dark gloves) and color switches and full blackout (which was shocking the few times it was employed) to match the beat of the music, which had a lot of bass for the Deaf actors and audience to sense; clever use of projection of subtitles so that some things weren't voiced (the rare power of the absolutely silent Broadway stage); the clash of 19th century and modern in set and costume and music; creative staging with members of the company forming a tree that two lovers sat beside or sitting as chairs representing tombstones (not unlike Our Town); and, if you reflected at all on the history of what would be Germany in the decades after the story takes place in 1891, you could see the seeds of totalitarianism in the rigidity of the adults (and the single salute and goose-stepping of the kids.)  As the Times noted in its astounding review, the fact that one of the company was in a wheelchair was seamlessly incorporated.  I hadn't realized how symbolically colorless and drab it all was until the teens walked off into a beautiful forest at the end, leaving their parents behind.  I'm still mulling over the symbolism of their coming out in their very white undergarments, donning drab costumes for the show, and then relinquishing the drab at the end to leave into the color wearing white.   There was even incense!  I'm not sure I've ever been at a show with scent.  Or with the no-cell phone and camera warning being conveyed visually by men holding placards at the front of the various sections.

I was amazed at how much of the ASL I could understand--thanks to my friend who started as my ASL teacher--though, I was also absorbing meaning through hearing the lyrics. I think I got more out of it with the signing and wouldn't have caught all the words otherwise.  The signing was very choreographed, creative, and dramatic.  Romantic performance of signs on each other's bodies; synchronized signing across the company; a seamless connection of signing and full-body movement; even some inside ASL jokes, only 1 of which I caught--the use of the sign "vagina" becoming "heart" when Wendla's mother can't bring herself to explain where babies come from (there's also the intertwined "love" sign on the poster.)     Check out a video of the first song here.  We clapped and signed applause after nearly every song, as did the whole house.  There was a loud and long standing ovation at the end.  We loved it.

We couldn't stage door, though.  All those college students were waiting to see their alumnus; we couldn't even see the barricade to join in.  It's okay.  I would probably have been too shaky to sign to Marlee Matlin et al how much I enjoyed the show.  So we stopped for Junior's cheesecake instead and  made it home by 1 a.m.

I can't shake the happy vibes the evening gave me (even though it's kind of a downer of a show, even with the last upbeat song), especially the joy of my friend at her first Broadway show, especially one in her language.  It was all unforgettable.

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