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February 10, 2003

Deaf actors provoke joyful sounds

From: The Hawk Eye, IA - 10 Feb 2003

By Bob Saar
For The Hawk Eye

MOUNT PLEASANT — Silence is golden.

That was just one of the messages that the National Theatre of the Deaf shot to the crowd Sunday night in Mount Pleasant.

The NTD production of "Oh, Figaro! or The Adventures of Viva and Figaro" was as good a visual treat as this corner of the state ever sees.

Until you've seen deaf actors, any description of the action is difficult. For this production, imagine "Sesame Street" in the middle of Cirque de Soleil's "O" ... with audio subtitles.

The NTD cast is not a horde of mimes — thank God — as mimes are silent caricatures of common, everyday actions.

What last night's audience did was laugh, a lot.

Too bad the actors couldn't hear them. But at least they could see them smile.

"Oh, Figaro!" features 10 actors —six deaf and four hearing — in a two–act farce set in modern — in a bizarre way — Spanish Harlem. Each lead character emotes physically while signing in American Sign Language. A speaking interpreter for each actor appears on stage in costume, sometimes as a set piece in a corner, sometimes as a figure center stage, but always speaking a lead's parts inconspicuously through a headset microphone.

Interpreters often appear as bystanders; for example, an old woman reading National Enquirer; an 8–foot skeleton on stilts; a ... duck hunter in Harlem?

It all works, visually as well as verbally.

The ASL jokes were over the audience's heads, but they managed to pick up most of them with translator help:

A blind justice of the peace appears and does nothing because she can't see the others signing in ASL.

Count Viva pokes himself in the eye while wooing Rosa in ASL, who warns that, "signing can be dangerous."

And so on.

The support crew of seven has learned some ASL while working on the show. Technical Director Craig Louie Baxter said that it helps during set changes between acts, since no one has to shout instructions out loud.

No, the sound engineer is not deaf.

Music professor Joel Brown saw the show in Iowa City years ago. "I've wanted to bring it here ever since," Brown said.

Brown estimated the meager crowd at 125. The performance was free, thanks to funding by the Haselmayer Endowment for the Arts.

"Oh, Figaro!" moves to Cedar Rapids today and is well worth the drive if you missed it in Mount Pleasant.

Anyone who was at Iowa Wesleyan's Chapel Auditorium last night can tell you the score on this one: Two thumbs up.

© 2003 The Hawk Eye