Deaf Theater Does Big River

May 2005
It's a sort of ballet of speaking, singing, and signing. The Deaf West Theatre's production of Big River opened last night at the Buell Theater, and the result was an amazing event. Mark Twain's classic tale of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his friend, the runaway slave Jim, has been retold. This time the play uses spoken words, along with American Sign Language, song, dance, and music. By fusing theater for the deaf and theater for hearing audiences, both can appreciate the multi-sensory aspects of theater during this unusual production. The hearing actors all perform ASL along with their speaking parts, and the deaf actors must perform to songs and dance to music that they cannot hear. (I'm told they're helped in part by a myriad of subtle visual cues, and by monitor screens that show the orchestra's conductor.) Huckleberry Finn, his drunken father, and other key roles are played simultaneously by a speaking/singing and a signing actor, a detailed and complex challenge that requires perfect synchronization. As a hearing person I wasn't sure what to expect at the beginning of the show, and had a fairly low expectation, I must admit. But I was surprised at how well it worked. It's beautiful to watch and fascinating, particularly during a few moments when they drive the point home by ending a full, energetic singing-and-signing song with complete silence during the last chorus, but continue the energetic, expressive and meaningful gestures of sign language. I haven't seen anything like it, and I'm sure I'm not alone.