Playwright: adapted by Janette Bauer and Aaron Sawyer from the play by William Shakespeare. At: Oracle and Red Theatre Chicago at the Oracle Studio, 3809 N. Broadway. Tickets: 252-220-0269: www.publicaccesstheatre.org; free. Runs through: Nov. 21
When combining two plays into one, it behooves the authors to decide first which play can be most readily pared down to make room for the other. In practice, this means that additional materialmusical score, satirical parody or whateverand the original source text must both fit comfortably into a performance time within the limits of modern theatrical practice. This principle is especially important when an adaptation proposes playgoers following a storyalbeit a Shakespeare classicin four languages simultaneously.
Some historical background: for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, was home to a populace nearly two-thirds afflicted with congenital deafness. Given these demographics, their condition met with the acceptance of their hearing neighbors, the two communities living in the harmony engendered by a shared bilingualismvocalized English and a regional visual-based vocabulary. The Montague clan has resided long in this isolated province, while the Capulets are recent immigrants, arriving to seek a cure for their daughter's "disability" ( perhaps aided by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell's research ). When Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet encounter each other one night at a beach party, their fates are sealed.
Among the intriguing motifs that Aaron Sawyer and Janette Bauer's concept suggest are Romeo's seeking refuge in the city of Providence after being banished from the colony, or snobbish Tybalt mocking "deaf speech" and covering his mouth when he speaks so as to discourage eavesdroppers. He also duels with a formal fencing rapier, as contrasted with Mercutio's whaling hook and Romeo's clamdigger knifetools often found in seacoast villages. The lovers' ally is now the tag team of Sister Laurence and Friar John, while parental obstruction is concentrated in a single Capulet matriarch. At times, Shakespeare's words are projected on video screens in their entirety; at other times, characters voice signers and sometimes whole scenes are performed exclusively in American Sign Language.
With sign language allowing for abbreviation conveying vast concepts with astonishing efficiency ( and bawdy jokes rendered considerably more raunchy than in blank verse ), the results come together over a mere 90 minutes with remarkable integrative unity under the guidance of director Sawyer, an array of consultants and instructors and eleven actors of diverse otological capabilities. Sawyer and Bauer provide a pre-curtain prologue for the players to swap sign-chat with hard-of-hearing audience membersand, with welcome generosity, wordplay with the aural-dependent to ease the latter into their dramatic universe.