Now extended thru December 12th!
Stirring and emotional
|Oracle Theatre and Red Theater Chicago presents|
|R + J: The Vineyard|
Review by Lauren Whalen
It’s a little known fact that the Martha’s Vineyard of the 1800’s had a large hereditary deaf population. This population created their own sign language, which was taught to both deaf and hearing residents from an early age. Tourists began to descend upon the Vineyard at the close of the 19th century, and sign language became a way for natives to define themselves while maintaining a social distance. As the Vineyard grew economically dependent on tourism, sign language and deaf culture were misunderstood and often seen as rude, and the influx of deaf schools in the United States led deaf islanders elsewhere. Oracle and Red Theater Chicago’s R+J: The Vineyard captures this unique time and place with aplomb, using a combination of deaf and hearing actors, and accordingly adapting the classic Shakespearean text to incorporate comedy, tragedy and the ups and downs of all forms of communication.
Romeo and Juliet is a story as old as time: the star-crossed love of two teenagers from warring families. The story is so old, in fact, it predates Shakespeare’s version. By condensing the five-act play to 90 minutes and incorporating the culture of Martha’s Vineyard in the 19th century, adaptors Aaron Sawyer and Janette Bauer take considerable liberties and risks. Text isn’t always spoken aloud, or it’s spoken by a hearing actor while another character signs. As Romeo (Brendan Connelly) and Juliet (McKenna Liesman) interact alone, most of their scenes are only communicated in sign. True to the Vineyard in the late 1800’s, several characters (most notably Lady Capulet and Tybalt) don’t sign, even though they have family and/or friends who do. Though this Juliet is deaf, her family refuses to accept it: they lampoon the Montagues’ use of sign and lip-reading, and try to force Juliet to speak and to use cumbersome hearing aid devices. Communication is at the core of Shakespeare’s play – secrets are blabbed, intentions misunderstood and life-changing missives undelivered – and R+J: The Vineyard tackles these issues in an innovative, inventive way like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Sawyer also directs with a sure, confident hand, effectively keeping the pace moving, save for a few unnecessary soliloquies. In R+J, relationships are solid and loyalty is especially fierce: it’s not just families at war, but deep-rooted principles. Shakespeare’s titular couple is quite verbal, it’s true, but their love really boils down to attraction and connection that goes beyond spoken words. Sawyer possesses both understanding of and appreciation for the adaptation he helped create, and takes its staging to another level.
The blend of hearing and deaf characters and actors is lovingly seamless: a cogent, gifted and utterly rare ensemble. Christopher Schroeder’s Mercutio is equal parts playful and emphatic, and Jeff Kurysz creates two distinct characters as the nerdy Paris and the combative Tybalt. Michael J. Stark may be the best Prince I’ve ever seen, and Pavi Proczko shines in several small roles. Connelly and Liesman share a youthful chemistry and their sign language conversations are breathtaking. And Brenda Scott Wlazlo is the play’s true standout: her Benvolio transforms from playful pal to abandoned lover to angel of death in the span of an hour and a half.
Oracle’s mission of “public access theater” means that (thanks to grants, donations and sponsorship programs) tickets to R+J: The Vineyard are free. All the more reason to step into the company’s small Lakeview venue and enter a whole new world. Though it’s an adaptation, this star-crossed love story is a true original, and missing out would be the true tragedy.
R+J: The Vineyard continues through
November 22nd December 12th at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map), with performances Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are FREE, but reservations are strongly recommended via PublicAccessTheatre.org. This production was produced in coordination with Five Eyes Project. More information at RedTheater.org. (Running time: 90 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Joe Mazza
Brendan Connelly (Romeo), McKenna Liesman (Juliet), Brenda Scott Wlazlo (Benvolio), Christopher Schroeder (Mercutio), C. Richard Costes (Abram, Chorus), Lona Livingston (Lady Capulet), Beth Harris (Nurse), Jeff Kurysz (Tybalt, Paris), Pavi Proczko (Sampson, Servant, Chorus, Page, Friar John, Apothecary), Michael Stark (Prince), Simone Zebot (Sister Laurence, Gregory, Chorus), Understudies: Olivia Soliz (Abram, Chorus), Christopher Paul Mueller (Tybalt, Paris)
behind the scenes
Aaron Sawyer (director and co-adaptor), Amber Kessler Freer (costume designer), Claire Alston (dramaturg), Janette Bauer (producer and co-adaptor), John Wilson (scenic design), Mary Kate Ashe (stage manager), Patrick O’Brien (sound design), Rob Russo (rehearsal interpreter, sign coach), Scott Dickens (properties design), Will Cotter (projections design), Daniella Doll (rehearsal interpreter), Isaac Riddle (volunteer interpreter), Crom Saunders (sign master), Dwight Sora, Tyler Meredith, Vahishta Vafadari (fight consultants), Buddy Rivara, Chris Lopez, Christopher Schroeder, Brendan Connelly, Juan Bernal, Mike Stark, Cizzy Boga (ASL interpreting team), Joe Mazza, Brave Lux (photos)