"R+J: The Vineyard" Review-A play upon the language of love

Red Theater has just closed it’s highly-recommended play “R+J: The Vineyard” after two extensions at The Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee. The play was more than just augmented by a “signer,”it was performed by both deaf and hearing actors, in both English and American Sign Language, (ASL) as well as sometimes accompanied by supertitles above the stage. Largely based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the beloved and immortal tale of star-crossed lovers, the adaptation by Janette Bauer and Aaron Sawyer, directed by Sawyer, was a seamlessly understandable, moving, very witty and delightful performance. The sub-title of this play, “Let hands do what lips do”, is, of course, a slight revision of one of the Bard’s memorable lines, “Let lips do what hands do”-in Shakespeare’s version, of course, it refers to touching-in this production, it refers to communicating.

Romeo and Juliet- no words necessary; photo courtesy of Aaron Sawyer

The setting here is Martha’s Vineyard, circa the 1890’s, not Verona, Italy, where three of Shakespeare’s plays are set. The reason? On the isolated island off the Massachusetts Coast, some early settlers (the first being one Jonathan Lambert in 1694) carried a gene for deafness, and passed it along, generation after generation, until 1 in 4 children was born deaf. Residents there developed a type of sign language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which later merged with mainland signs to become ASL. Eventually, as deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they moved away and the last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950’s.

Juliet looks compellingly at Romeo; photo courtesy of Matthew Freer

One very intriguing point about the use of sign language on Martha’s Vineyard that resonates with it’s use in “R+J”, was referred to in a newspaper in 1895-both the spoken and signed languages were used freely and easily by both deaf and hearing individuals. In the play, Brendan Connelly, who plays Romeo, is deaf, but McKenna Liesman, who plays Juliet, can hear. Yet, they communicate not just in ASL, but in the language of play, of passion, of the heart- and Liesman, particularly, made spectacular use of her eyes, those “windows of the soul”; the smoldering, knowing, and sidelong glances she leveled at him left nothing to the imagination and needed no translation. However, the brilliant Brenda Scott Wlazlo, who took to Elizabethan English as though born to it, and played Benvolio and Queen Mab, used both languages seemingly without effort; her hands were eloquent and her  “Queen Mab” soliloquy left this reviewer breathless.

Brendan Connelly and McKenna Liesman as Romeo and Juliet; photo courtesy of Aaron Sawyer

There were a number of modernized and clever changes from the original script,  the most intriguing being the use of the same actor to play more than one character, both of whom  acknowledge the deafness of the others; Christian Stokes does a great job both as Paris and as Tybalt .  There was also an instance of conflating two characters into one-Kelli Walker as the Capulet matriarch obviates the need for Juliet’s dad.

Brenda Scott Wlazlo as Queen Mab; photo courtesy of Matthew Freer

There were many impressive aspects to this performance- great writing, terrific costumes, wonderfully versatile characters- Chris Schroeder as Mercutio was masterful.  However, the most winning aspect for this reviewer was the steadfast adherence to the original Shakespearean tradition of witty asides, anger subsiding to laughter, tragedy and comedy intermingled.In the different languages used here,all these devices came through winningly.

Romeo and Juliet signing "swear"; photo courtesy of Aaron Sawyer

To see other great performances by this company, go to  www.redtheater.org






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