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July 1, 2004

A 'touching' show

From: Newsday, NY (Review) - Jul 1, 2004

A deaf-blind theater troupe from Israel says volumes, even without speaking

Peter Goodman

July 1, 2004

Bat Sheva Ravensari has thick, dark hair and a brilliant smile. She stands alone in the center of the stage of the Jeanne Rimsky Theater in Port Washington: "Deaf people can see things without touching them. Their life is easy. The hearing blind can hear everything. They have a sight problem. What am I? I am deaf blind, I can't speak. My life is very, very difficult. A lot of the deaf and the hearing blind reject the deaf blind. All the deaf blind people don't know what it is to be happy."

When Ravensari is finished, she flashes her broad smile, spreads her arms gracefully and bows deeply to the applause that she can neither hear nor see. No one in the audience heard her, for she did not speak. She signed in Hebrew, and her words were translated into American Sign Language and then spoken by an interpreter at the side of the stage.

Unique troupe

Bat Sheva Ravensari is an actress, a member of the unique Israeli theater troupe Nalaga'at ("Do Touch"), which performed Monday in Port Washington and Tuesday at Symphony Space in Manhattan near the close of a two-week North American tour, its first. Every member of the company is deaf and blind. As far as is known, it is the only deaf-blind theater company in the world.

The show is called "Light Is Heard in Zig Zag." What does that mean? Company founder Adina Tal paused when asked earlier at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point.

"It is the whole confusion," she said. "Like creating a whole life, a way of being, when you create something new. It is a name we liked."

"Light Is Heard in Zig Zag" is a series of sketches developed by the actors as an expression of their dreams. Depending on the depth of disability - some have residual vision or slight hearing - they are guided to starting positions and perform while interpreters convey their thoughts. There is a lot of touching in this awkward but deeply moving ballet.

From class to stage

Most of Nalaga'at's dozen performers - seven native Israelis, the rest Russian or Romanian immigrants - have day jobs in sheltered workshops scattered through Israel. They are volunteers who responded when Tal, a theater director and actress, assembled a drama class at a Tel Aviv center for the disabled.

It was not supposed to be an acting company, but "I fell in love with the group, and I took the position that, if I work with them, and they work hard...." Tal said forcefully. "I saw it like going through a boundary of silence and darkness, opening a little window, seeing that everything is possible. It is about the human spirit: There is nothing that cannot be done. And doing it onstage is an important message for seeing and hearing people."

The message, based on Monday night's performance, appeared to be that, while life can be hard and depressing for those who can neither hear nor see, they are still human and their dreams are no different from those who can see and hear.

To communicate that information, the performers, wearing black, use guides and interpreters dressed in red to help them move about the stage and to translate. All of them communicate by touch, but some also use Russian and Hebrew sign languages as well as touch languages developed for individual students.

After a show in Boston last week, the company spent the weekend at the Keller center. Before Monday's performance, the company gave a workshop for students there, where deaf- blind people spend eight or nine months learning to live in the outside world.

Seated in a large circle, with interpreters behind them or at their sides, they performed a series of exercises Tal had created for her company.

First, they squeezed the hand of the person next to them, progressively around the circle. Then they patted their legs. Then there was the "exercise of mirrors": Student and actor faced each other and touched hands, with the student following the actor's movements.

Nalaga'at member Yuri Oshorov seemed to love this one. As he led student Richard Cole in ever-more-animated movements, he squealed with delight. When it was over, Cole said, "It was great. I felt like he was my brother."

Keller Center director Joe McNulty said that, after working with Tal, his staff hopes to put together its own troupe.

What dreams may come

At the Rimsky Theater, dreams continue to unfold. Shoshana Segal wants to cross the street "with confidence," to go shopping, to tell another customer "the sugar is over there - can't you see?"

She dreams of a birthday party: The guests, feeling their way carefully or being directed by gentle touches, dance gracefully, drink toasts and finally lift her triumphantly on a chair while showering her with bubbles and flowers.

When it's over, the troupe coaxes her back: "Shoshana, wake up. It's just a dream."

"I don't want to," she says.

"Wake up. You don't have a choice."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.