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November 19, 2004

Theater: Deaf West's production of 'Big River' adds another dimension to musical

From: The Delaware County Times - Chester,PA,USA - Nov 19, 2004

By NEAL ZOREN , Special to the Daily Times

Reviving "Big River" was not such an unusual idea. This musical version of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" received a Tony as Best Musical in 1985 and features a catchy, if sometimes silly, score by "King of the Road" composer Roger Miller.

Its quality and entertainment value speak for itself. The production coming to the Academy of Music on Tuesday has another wonderful dimension.

It didn't originate in the office of a producer who figured a 20th anniversary tour of "Big River" would find an audience. It started at Deaf West, a Los Angeles theater company that creates opportunities for deaf artists, but doesn't confine itself to plays created for deaf performers. A musical the size of "Big River," with its many characters and plot lines, posed many challenges, but Deaf West's staging met them so well, its production moved from L.A. to Broadway, where it had another brush with Tony as a 2004 nominee in the Best Revival of a Musical category, and is now on the road.

Its Academy run, part of the Kimmel Center's Broadway at the Academy series, lasts a week. "Big River" returns to the area in January for a 12-performance run at Wilmington's DuPont Theatre.

To mount its vision of "Big River," Deaf West combines hearing and non-hearing actors, all using American Sign Language while playing their roles (as opposed to having a signer to one side of the stage.)

While a deaf actor is doing his part, a hearing actor is voicing it. Staging this production took a lot of care and coordination. Among the people responsible for "Big River's" success is one of the most remarkable people in contemporary American theater, Linda Bove.

For 32 years, Bove, born deaf to deaf parents, has worked continually as an actress. In 1970, she came to Philadelphia as a fledgling actress and charter member of the National Theater of the Deaf. In 1981, she returned to give a riveting performance in "Children of a Lesser God," a role she also played on Broadway.

The public knows her best for her 28 years on television's "Sesame Street" as Linda the Librarian, who communicated in ASL and brought understanding about life without hearing to millions of children worldwide.

Bove is "Big River's" ASL master, a new position created by Deaf West, to insure that ASL is performed with the same depth and texture as spoken language. Bove says being ASL master is a major challenge.

"Certainly it is unusual for someone like me who is deaf to have the opportunities I've had in the theater," Bove says in a phone interview during which Deaf West's Bill O'Brien translated. "I am fortunate to have worked continuously for 32 years, to have opened doors for others, and for the long run on 'Sesame Street.'

As ASL master, it's Bove's job to make sure "Big River" translates to the audience in many different ways, the same way a stage director would while working with speaking actors in any language.

"The signing has to be as expressive, dramatic, and rich as spoken communication," she said. "If there are jokes, they have to be funny and played comically, not just related with no expression or emphasis in ASL. Since 'Big River' is a musical, it's important that the rhythm of the signing match the rhythm of the music."

"I want the same spirit of communication in ASL as is found in any language," Bove says. ASL is a different language from spoken English, so the first decisions were about translation. It doesn't have to be literal. It has to be in synch and say the same thing in ASL."

"Big River" is performed in two languages simultaneously, and they both have to give the audience the total experience of the piece, Bove said.

Growing up, Bove says she did not think of a theater as a career.

"I came from a deaf family, and I had no interest in theater. I didn't even relate to it. It never occurred to me the theater would be a place I would find work and make a living."

Bove came to theater by accident.

"I attended Gallaudet University in Washington, and it offered a theater program. I took part out of curiosity and became more and more active. I loved it. It was a rich experience that added to my life as a college student and gave me the chance to be expressive. By my junior year, my interest in theater grew way beyond curiosity.

"Then my first stroke of good fortune came. The National Theater of the Deaf was being formed, and it needed deaf actors. Look at that. I could leave college, work in the theater, earn a salary as an actress, and tour the country playing before audiences who were open and appreciative. We did classics and new plays. It was a great, expanding experience."

Today, Bove is active with Deaf West and works with the theater as it charts its next paths. "We are looking at doing an original musical," Bove says.

Meanwhile, she and another deaf actress will be bringing a new play, "Open Window" by Stephen Sachs to the Pasadena Playhouse this winter.

"It's a play about two women, both deaf, who have a conflicted relationship," Bove says.

"It's a wonderful piece because while both characters are deaf, their deafness does not figure into the plot. The audience sees two strong women trying to resolve an intense situation. They just happen to be deaf. By the time the play had been on for a few minutes, the deafness will be inconsequential. It's great that a theater like Pasadena Playhouse chose 'Open Window' and that the production is underway.

"Deaf West has other plays in development and other adaptations of known plays that do not have deaf characters. It's an exciting time." If You Go

* "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" runs from Tuesday to next Sunday, Nov. 28, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. There is no performance on Thursday, Thanksgiving. Tickets range from $85 to $37.50 and can be ordered by calling (215) 893-1999.

©The Daily Times 2004