Mix actors with experienced American Sign Language actors and you don’t just get a traditional production with finger spelling on the side.
You might just end up with more of a “Dream” team, as in the Shakespeare Players of Rochester’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Director Luane Davis Haggerty mounts a bold production in which each human character is paired with a fairy counterpart, with the fairy speaking the lines in sign language. But Haggerty hasn’t just gone with a word-for-word translation. In some instances, the fairies amplify the voice actor’s lines or thoughts with bolder moves or reactions.
When Bottom, pompously playing the hero Pyramus, dies repeatedly during the play-within-a-play near the end, for instance, voice actor Bill Alden focuses on delivering Bottom's final words in many forms while his signing counterpart, Troy Chapman, mimes Bottom's death again and again, with growing frustration that his human version doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. This fairy Bottom, bouncing up and down after repeated death throes, finally tries stabbing the human Bottom hilariously.
Shakespeare Players of Rochester, a program of Rochester Community Players, has mounted outdoor Shakespeare plays in Rochester, NY since 1994. This production, with the entire play acted out both in voice and sign language at the same time, is believed to be a first for any Shakespeare company.
The production works well mostly. Haggerty, an experienced teacher and director of theater at National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, starts the play by introducing each character. The human character voices his or her name as the fairy character signs the same name, allowing the audience to understand that one character is being played simultaneously by two people and in two different fashions.
The action begins with the human characters on the left side of the stage and the fairy characters on the right, which feels a little like watching a table tennis game. Before long, though, both sets of actors are traveling across the stage and intermingling. The human characters are not aware of the fairies, but they occasionally interact, with the fairies even tripping the humans or supporting them when they collapse.
The action often spills off the stage — I kept waiting for the madly dashing Pucks (Jonathan Lowery speaking, Nic Shaw signing) to twist an ankle when jumping off the head-high stage — or starts behind the audience on the lawn and runs toward the stage.
Trish Annese is wonderfully regal and often sexy as Hippolyta/Titania. Fairy version Nicole Hood gave a more ethereal but still royal and sexy portrayal. Stephen Cena as the human Theseus/Oberon, though, was simply too restrained and didn’t convince us that his Oberon was motivated by jealousy. His fairy version, played by Jamal Jones, was more convincing with his pantomimed emotions.
The cast is gifted in physical comedy, with the Helena duo (human Jamie Tyrell, fairy Brittany Dzugas-Smith) earning special honors. The actresses who played the human Helena and Hermia (Rebecca Miller) are near equal height, which might not have worked when they fight and disparage each other for being too tall or too short. Tyrell, though, jumps on the back of her fairy alter ego and gains the height advantage.
Where the play was difficult was in the sheer number of people on stage. The director did admirable work with the blocking and was quite inventive — the back and forth between mixed-up human lovers got a boost from fairies pushing them or holding them back. But sometimes there was simply too much going on for one set of eyes and ears to catch. In one scene, the frustrated Helenas and Hermias are center stage having an animated discussion while the human Lysander and Demetrius are having a slow-motion brawl to one side and the fairy Lysander and Demetrius are trying to choke each other in the other corner. It was hard to know where to look.
On the other hand, it was entertaining to observe how varied the matched sets of actors were — sometimes different genders, sometimes different races or ethnicities and sometimes both. They even differed noticeably by age in some cases. It would be hard to beat this production for diversity.
Costuming, apparently done without a central designer, revealed some interesting choices — colonial-ish attire for most of the humans — and some even worked. The Centurion costume that the human Bottom donned as Pyramus gave the appropriate over-the-top impression. The same with the purple and magenta prom gown from hell that Francis Flute (a very funny Tinh Lik To) wore to play Thisbe. Fairies were denoted with sparkly wings and flowing tunics and pants. More sparkles decorated the nerdy fairy version of Francis Flute, played by Joseph Fox II, when he was the signing Thisbe.
With so many characters and actors on stage, it was a relief to see a streamlined set — mostly a few trees and pillars that doubled as tree trunks, supporting a second story populated by musicians with early music instruments.
You haven’t lived, by the way, until you’ve heard Pharell’s “Happy” played on recorders, tin whistle and hand drums. The accompanying dance verges on chaos with ribbons being twirled hither and yon, but it ends with an elegant duet between the child Peasblossom (Taylor Windheim) and the signing Titania.
As an experiment, this Midsummer was successful and perhaps will create a demand for more accessible and satisfying theater.