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February 23, 2003

Frenzied Farce Is Twice as Frantic With Addition of Sign Language

From: Salt Lake Tribune, UT - 23 Feb 2003


    When Michael Frayn watched his own one-act play "Chinamen" from backstage, he found it funnier than the onstage version. Inspired, he wrote his great backstage farce, "Noises Off," considered by many to be the funniest play ever written.
    "Chinamen" was hilarious from backstage, because Frayn wrote it for one women and one man, who each play five comedy roles. Performing it necessitates hectic backstage costume changes and split-second timing. It was while watching the show's frantic actors come close to public disaster again and again that Frayn got his big idea for the show that made him a zillionaire.
    Imagine if Frayn had seen the version of "Chinamen" debuting in Logan and Salt Lake City this week. The production is cast for two speaking actors and two actors using American Sign Language. Double the complications backstage and out front. How funny would "Noises Off" be if Frayn had seen that?
    The "Chinamen" production is the graduate project of Utah State University theater student Page Petrucka; it will be presented at USU's Black Box Theatre and at the Utah Community Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Salt Lake City.
    Petrucka became fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of combining English and ASL onstage when she participated in a Utah Opera production of "Hansel and Gretel" several years ago. Intrigued with the way the two forms of communication reinforced each other, she determined to find other ways to use them together onstage.
    Petrucka wanted to find a project that deaf people could enjoy with their families and friends. The farcical "Chinamen" suited her wish for an entertaining project that would be suitable for all ages.
    "This play is fun for everybody, and the physical comedy translates well into American Sign Language," she said.
    Petrucka's biggest challenge was in casting the play. The signing roles require actors adept in ASL, and she wanted to cast people with hearing impairments in the roles. Unfortunately, the deaf actor she cast in the male role had to withdraw from the play for personal reasons. Petrucka replaced him on short notice with a signing friend who has one major hurdle to overcome in playing the role -- she is a woman.
    "It actually works, because this is a farce," said Petrucka. "It's going to be crazy, but that's to be expected."
    The current cast includes a speaking man and woman and their signing counterparts, two women.
    "They each play five different parts, running offstage to change clothes and become somebody else," Petrucka said. "The pairs of actors dress identically and work together during the scenes. You see both talking to the two others. . . . It won't be confusing. They are like two halves to a whole person."
    The gist of "Chinamen" is that Stephen and Jo, husband and wife, have invited their friend Bee and her new boyfriend to a dinner party. Belatedly, the hosts realize Bee's abandoned former boyfriend, Barney, is also on the guest list. Panic ensues as Stephen and Jo try to shield themselves from an awkward scene by keeping Bee and Barney away from each other. Doors slam, costumes go on and come off (times two), and the classic ingredients for farce are in place.
    In a New York Times article discussing "Noises Off," Frayn explained why audiences are so entertained by seeing actors muddle through such familiar social situations:
    "It's about an anxiety everyone has, that he may make a fool of himself in public, that he may not be able to maintain his persona, that the chaotic feelings inside may burst out, that the whole structure may break down. I suspect people are seeing the kind of disaster they fear may happen to them, but one that's safely happening to these actors. They're discharging fear and anxiety in a way that doesn't hurt."
    Frayn told another journalist: "When I first started playwriting, interviewers used to say to me, 'Why do you write farce? Why don't you write about life as it really is?' I could never imagine what their lives were like, because mine has many sadly farcical aspects."
    Petrucka is pleased that her play can be seen by a broader audience through its presentation at the Utah Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which provides education, technological assistance and support services to the public.
    Marilyn Call, director of UCDHH, said the center has hosted out-of-state theater troupes that perform theater for the deaf, but never a play for hearing and nonhearing audiences.
    "Our mission at the deaf center is to have programs without language barriers for people who are deaf and their families," said Call, "so this was a perfect fit."
   "Chinamen" is performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language.
   The one-act farce will be presented at the Utah Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (5709 S. 1500 West, Salt Lake City) Thursday at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. and at Utah State University's Black Box Theatre, in Logan, Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 4 and 7 p.m.
   Tickets to all performances are $5, available at the door; USU students with ID are admitted free. Children under 6 not admitted. For information, call 435-797-0087 or 801-263-4860.

© Copyright 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune.