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Twin farces staged at Atlantic Theater Company's blackbox space May 31 to June 18. Production unites New York Deaf Theatre, Ltd. with Onyx Theater Company, a producer of plays for deaf artists of color.

(L-R): Guthrie Nutter and Monique Holt
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

May 31 to June 18 (opens June 1)
The Atlantic Blackbox, 453 W. 16th Street (2nd floor)
Presented by New York Deaf Theatre Company, Ltd. and Onyx Theatre
Subways: A, C, E, L to 14th Street
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm
$12/tdf, $10 (group sales)
Audience info/reservations: Smarttix: 212/532-8887 (VOICE), www.smarttix.com (INTERNET), 212/924-9535 (TTY).
New York Deaf Theatre, Ltd. (NYDT), the original producer of plays in American Sign Language in the New York area, will team up with Onyx Theater Company, a company committed to the growth of deaf artists of color, to present a deaf version of "The Two of Us" by Michael Frayn, an evening of two fast-moving comedies, May 31 to June 18 at Atlantic Theater Company's "453" blackbox theater at 453 W. 16th Street (9th-10th Avenues). The plays, performed in American Sign Language, will be simultaneously spoken in English. Tim Chamberlain directs.

Playwright Michael Frayn is author of "Copenhagen," which is gobbling up Best New Play awards for its Broadway production this season. He is author of more than eleven original plays, of which "Alphabetical Order," "Make and Break" and "Noises Off" received Best Comedy of the Year Awards in London and "Benefactors" was named Best Play of the Year by the Evening Standard. He is a prolific translator of Chekhov's plays into English. He has also written two films, nine novels, a volume of philosophy and numerous productions for television. "The Two of Us" (1970) was originally produced as an evening of four one-acts (two of which are in this production). It is one of Frayn's earliest works for the stage. One play, "The New Quixote," foreshadows the profound comedy of his later works. The other play, "Chinamen" (informally re-named "Look-Alikes" for this production), demonstrates the farcical craft New Yorkers found so delightful in "Noises Off."

"The New Quixote," the first part of the evening, is a "morning after" debacle between an older woman and a younger man, set in her "urban cottage" in the '70s. What she imagines as a one-night stand is taken by him as a committed relationship. Frayn expertly exploits the comedic incompatibility between a mature woman, who is resolved to live alone, and an overly-sensitive, too-intelligent younger man who is determined to move in with her. In this production, the battle of the sexes is sure to reach beyond what the author probably ever imagined, because issues unique to deaf people slip into the plot in surprising ways. For example, when Kenneth forces his stereo and record collection on Gina, it raises the dichotomy in the deaf community between music lovers and those who don't care for music.

"Look-Alikes" (originally titled "Chinamen" by the author) is a fast-moving farce in which two actors play seven different people. It depicts a peculiar married couple in which the dotty husband has a "block for names" and only the wife can tell their friends apart. To an ill-fated dinner party, they have accidentally invited the most incompatible guests: he has asked the husband of a separated couple, while she has summoned the wife and her new boyfriend. In a jumble of switcheroos and breakneck dashing in and out of doors, the host and hostess try to make sure their three guests never meet.

Adapting the plays into American Sign Language raised provocative questions on "how to keep them deaf?". The overriding concern is that the plays, written with British wit and diction, should make sense in American Sign Language. It was decided that since the primary language of the production is ASL, so would be the rhythm of the plays. When the English text is significantly at variance, the text has been adjusted to reflect what the actor is actually signing.

The actors are Monique Holt and Guthrie Nutter. Both are deaf; she is Asian (a naughty piece of color-blind casting for "Look-Alikes"). Mr. Nutter, a gifted comedian, appeared in IRT's sign language production of "Twelfth Night" and tours frequently with Amaryllis Theater of Philadelphia, a deaf company. Ms. Holt has appeared with Pan Asian Rep, Playwrights Horizons, NYSF and others and played Brooke Ashton in "Noises Off" in a production directed by Tim Chamberlain at the Samuel Beckett Theater. The two actors previously appeared together in "Cyrano De Bergerac" at Expanded Arts Theater. The accompanying spoken text will be "voiced" by Anna Tulia Rameriz and Divine Young.

Director Tim Chamberlain was originally a musician and later (for ten years), a modern dancer. He learned ASL to collaborate with an American deaf dance troupe that was first named Lightwaves and later, American Dance Theater of the Deaf. While teaching dance and choreographing in Paris in the early '90s, he directed his first deaf production (in French sign language), Molière's "Love is the Best Medicine." He worked on the first production of Onyx Theater Company, "There's Butter but no Bread" (1990), an adaptation of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" that developed themes of deaf people and minorities waiting for government action. He staged "Noises Off" for New York's IRT in 1995.

New York Deaf Theatre, Ltd. has been at the vanguard of growing interest in Deaf Theatre in NYC. It was established in 1979 by a group of Deaf actors and theatre artists to create opportunities for productions in American Sign Language, an art form then not found elsewhere in the city. Since 1988, it has grown from a small group whose focus centered almost exclusively within the deaf community to a professional theatre company which draws general audiences as well. Its 21 productions to-date include "Educating Rita" (1991), "'night, Mother" (1992)" and "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (1993). Its last production was "Profile of a Deaf Peddler" (1999). Its general manager is Gary Rosenblatt.

Onyx Theatre Company, led by Michele Banks, is committed to the growth of deaf artists of color in professional theater and presents works based on their life experiences. It has assembled a stack of enthusiastic reviews for productions which mix hearing and deaf actors and entwine American Sign Language spoken parts. Reviewing its "A Not So Quiet Nocturne" by Jaye Austin-Williams at the Vineyard Theater in 1997, the New York Times (D.J.R. Bruckner) wrote, "This company, which specializes in theater by the deaf and presents plays in combinations of sign language and speech, continues to set very high standards for innovation in making the whole range of human expression as available in silence as it is in voices." The production was a coming-into-maturity story of a young African-American woman with AIDS.

Onyx also received strong approval for "A Laying of Hands" by Michelle Maureen Verhoosky on Theater Row in 1996. It was the story of a deaf black woman in 1930’s Georgia who acquires a miraculous power to cure others, but struggles to heal her own "outsider's" heart. D.J.R. Bruckner (New York Times) wrote, "Ms. Verhoosky’s...insights into despair, hope, wickedness and rascality are extraordinary, and often brilliantly exploited by 15 actors." He added, "Ms. Joyner (Patrice Joyner, who played the central character) uses only American sign language; some characters speak and sign. What is most striking is how natural all this conversation is and how much it reveals about imagination, speech and silence." [NYTW]

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