I experienced “Tribes” last night at the Unicorn Theatre. I went last night on purpose as it was going to be interpreted into sign language.
As I was getting to my seat, the audience was filled with members of the Deaf community who were signing to each other across the theatre, gesturing and translating where to sit in order to see the interpreters. It was a partially quiet audience since half of us were speaking only in sign language. I felt like an outsider but I was ok feeling like an outsider. It was part of the point.
Even though this show has four seasoned actors and two newcomers, all six of them balanced beautifully. They all were intense and quiet at the right times. The emotion and the fighting could have pushed to melodrama, but it felt authentic of a family who is dysfunctional in the way they show affection. Is it dysfunctional in the conventional way you think of abuse? No, it’s more insidious, and it’s brilliant and almost feels too long and uncomfortable as the backdrop to Billy’s (Paul Ososki) silence at the top of the work. Christopher (David Fritts), Beth (Jan Rogge), Ruth (Nicole Marie Green), and Daniel (Jake Walker) are all yelling at each other, leaving us, and Billy, confused. Billy has been treated as not deaf, but in doing so, he’s been left feeling isolated. The very thing the parents and family was striving to do had the opposite effect.
Jan Rogge is brilliant. I can’t say enough about her. She has to be sympathetic, angry, liked, hated, near tears, the whole gamut. It’s easy to overlook her performance with the caustic lines that David Fritts delivers as the patriarch Christopher, but Jan is a jewel. Caught between these parents, Nicole has to play Ruth as sometimes in control and sometimes not. Though her part is smaller compared to the rest, she never lets you forget she’s there. She shows us heartbreak in the midst of a dark comedic moment.
I’m completely biased because Jake Walker is a friend of a friend, and an alum of Creed Rep. What he had to do as Daniel was absolutely dangerous. Whenever one interprets someone with a mental illness, there is the danger of becoming a caricature, or laughable. Jake’s brilliance was the believability and the breath-holding moments of not knowing what Daniel was going to do next. Was he going to kill someone? Kill himself? Kill Billy, his anchor, if he tried to go off on his own? Drive Sylvia away if she tries to take Billy away? You just don’t know what Daniel is going to do or say next, within the confines of a believable character in the midst of unbelievable physicality. As I told him, he killed it. Absolutely killed it.
Among all this, Paul Ososki (Billy) and Lisa Lehnen (Sylvia) navigated their relationship with a new language. I think there was supposed to be screens on the stage that showed what was being signed but they malfunctioned. As someone who didn’t know sign, I missed some of Sylvia’s dialogue. I actually thought that was brilliant. Earlier, when half the audience was signing to one another, I was similarly lost. I wasn’t in that tribe. This play wasn’t for me, or about me. I was going to miss parts.
As I was leaving the theatre, I patron behind me mumbled, “Well, I give that a C+, I couldn’t understand what they were signing or saying half the time. I felt lost.” I almost turned around to give him a hand gesture I knew he wouldn’t misinterpret, but I kept it to myself. Really, I think that was the part of the play that is important, and having the subtitles break in the middle of the show was actually quite brilliant. The Deaf community doesn’t have the benefit of subtitles and people patient enough to teach or show them what is being said. As a hearing person, lost at what is happening, we got a taste of our own medicine.
This is an exceptional article which talks about the director’s desire for authenticity of the casting of Paul Ososki (Billy) as a profoundly deaf actor and of casting Lisa Lehnen (Sylvia) a ASL interpreter: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/performing-arts/article22930440.html .
* The best translation? Having Paul Walker gesture a blow job, and watching the interpreters interpret it again. Hilarious. The interpreters were just as expressive and on point as the actors, and they become part of the show themselves.