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Despoty poor script, Theatre of the Deaf excels


Written by Robert Nathan.

Directed by J Ranelli.No period after J

Presented by the National Theatre

of the Deaf.

Starring Nat Wilson and Chuck Baird.

Emerson Majestic Theatre, Feb. 7, 8 pm.


IF A PICTURE IS WORTH a thousand words, then perhaps it was only appropriate that I was left speechless at the National Theatre of the Deaf's performance of One More Spring on Saturday night.

The NTD was formed 25 years ago, and has performed classic plays, including works by Chekov, Voltaire, Homer,

Moli`ere and Puccini, as well as specially-written and adapted modern plays, including One More Spring.

The company performs using a combination of sign language and spoken English. The main characters are played by deaf actors, and communicate almost exclusively in Sign. Two hearing actors provide voices for the deaf actors, so that you can hear and see the dialogue at the same time. The NTD has won numerous awards over the years, including a Tony in 1977 for Theatrical Excellence and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts Award in 1979.

Ironically, the people who probably enjoyed the show the most were those members of the audience who were both hearing and understood Sign. The speed at which the actors signed made it difficult for the deaf members of the audience to understand everything that was happening, while the hearing members of the audience who did not understand Sign missed some of the emotional impact that the actors gave to their performances.

The script which the NTD actors were given was the weakest link in an otherwise strong chain. One More Spring, a comedy set during the Depression, brings us into the lives of Jared Oktar (Chuck Baird),

the owner of a failed antique shop, and Morris Rosenberg (Mark Allen Bransen), a failed and bankrupt violinist. The actors did a superb job of interpreting their roles; they were convincing in almost every way. The script, however, wavered between slapstick comedy (it took me a while to understand why they did not include any puns) and a serious look at poverty and homelessness, unsure of its direction.

Oktar and Rosenberg meet a number of other people in similar situations over the course of the play. Camille L. Jeter does

a good job as Eliabeth Cheney, a well-meaning prostitute who joins Oktar and Rosenberg in a tool shed in New York's Central Park. Jeter handled her highly emotional character very well, showing just how powerfully Sign can communicate feelings to an audience. Unfortunately, Jeter's character was a bit too

emotional for my taste, and never got a chance to develop more fully.

The "guardian angel" of the play,

Mr. Sweeney (Robert DeMayo), is a sanitation worker who finds Oktar and Rosenberg while cleaning one day in Central Park. Sweeney lets them stay in his tool shed during the fall, winter and spring, and invites them to his house (a little lavish for a sanitation worker during the Depression, if you ask me) for holiday celebrations.

In exchange for Sweeney's hospitality, Rosenberg offers to teach his host how to play the violin. The violin lessons provide a good dose of humor, perhaps explaining why Rosenberg is so unsuccessful at playing his instrument. However, except for the violin and sweeping up the park, Sweeney's character is quite shallow -- offering very little time for DeMayo to show off his acting talent.

Sweeney's wife, played by Susan Jackson, was by far the funniest character in the play. A good Irish Catholic, Mrs. Sweeney is worried about the people whom her husband has so casually let enter his tool shed. Jackson did a marvelous job as the bumbling, motherly woman, and added a bit of charm that I wish I had seen in other parts of the play.

Josif Shneiderman, who played the part of the bankrupt bank president, was listed as a guest performer from the Soviet Union. His performance was adequate, although it is hard to say whether it was his acting or the script he was given which made for a good, but somewhat bland, performance.

The best performance by far, though, was given by Nat Wilson, who narrated the story. His signing was emotional and full of life, yet was clear enough for even a neophyte signer like me to understand most of what he was saying.

Tommy Cheng and Kymberli Colbourne, who provided voices for the signing actors, were exceptionally good. I was impressed most by their ability to speak almost exactly in sync (so far as I could tell) with what was being signed by the actors. For the most part, the voices provided by Cheng and Colbourne were exactly as you would have expected the actor's voices to sound, with variances in intonation, accent and speed that matched the signing exactly.

The best part of going to see the NTD, though, was an almost total immersion in what is called "deaf culture." Many of the people there were deaf, and it was truly fascinating to see the conversations that were being signed during the intermission, before and after the play. The NTD performance seemed to be a focal event for the deaf community, bringing them together for an activity which is normally reserved only for the hearing world.

I was surprised to see that the theater was only about three-quarters full. Granted, I attended the last night of a three-day run, but it was still disappointing to see that so few people had turned out to see this unusual performance.

In a brief conversation with DeMayo, who played Mr. Sweeney (interpreted by my IAP sign language teacher, Thomas R. Westcott '93), I learned that NTD actors must go through a rigorous four-week training session during the summer.

DeMayo joined NTD only this year, after working with the Sunshine Too acting troupe for a short while. He noted that there is purposely "no difference" made between hearing and deaf audience members, so that they may feel like a united community.

DeMayo did not think that shrinking arts budgets, which provide much of the funding for NTD productions, threaten the company's future. "We have a good reputation, and good responses from a lot of people," he said. How long does he think he will stay with NTD? "Until I become a star," DeMayo said.

Considering their talent, it would not be surprising if all of the NTD performers become stars one day. However, actors of such fine talent deserve scripts of better quality.

The NTD will be coming to Boston in September, with a production of Treasure Island. If their next performance is as good as the one which I saw, it is well worth your while.