Chicago Theatre Review
Let Hands Do What Lips Do
R+J: The Vineyard – Red Theater and the Oracle Theater
Inspired by an agricultural society, later evolving into a tourist industry, that sprang up during the 1800’s on Martha’s Vineyard, this bilingual community of hearing-impaired, hearing and hard-of-hearing individuals somewhat mirrored the rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” This island culture, which was somewhat isolated from mainland America, developed their own unique sign language. Because the hearing-impaired understood and communicated with each other primarily through this manual vocabulary, the people were thought of as being rude or arrogant by the hearing community.
Aaron Sawyer, founder and Artistic Director of the Red Theatre, worked with Managing Director Janette Bauer to write this beautiful, unique ASL and spoken adaptation of the Bard’s classic love story. In a co-production with the Jeff Award-winning Oracle Theater, Mr. Sawyer also directs this original production, ably assisted by Crom Saunders and Rob Russo, as Sign Master and Coach, respectively. The production is as timely and intimately staged as if set within the theatergoer’s living room, lending it a very personal feel.
Sawyer’s talented, eleven member cast breathe new life into all the major characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Brenda Scott Wlazlo is exceptional as a spirited female Benvolio. She gives this character’s relationship with the Prince’s nephew a whole new interpretation. As Mercutio, likable Christopher Schroeder creates a humorous and beautifully realized character whose death leaves a sad void in the story. There’s sexual chemistry between these two and the playfulness with which they tease their kinsman, Romeo, is fun and realistic. Beth Harris is sweetly maternal and empathetic as Juliet’s Nurse and Michael Stark is handsomely regal and commanding as the Prince.
The character of Friar Lawrence, Romeo’s mentor and advisor, becomes Sister Lawrence in this version, and is played with compassion and authority by Simone Zebot. Pavi Proczko, perhaps the hardest-working actor in this cast, is seen as, among several other characters, Friar John, the Apothecary and Sampson. As such, Mr. Proczko brings high energy and versatility to each role he plays. In this adaptation, Juliet’s father is mysteriously never seen, leaving only Lady Capulet to dispense all the parental advice and stern admonishment. She’s played with grace and dignity by Lona Livingston, although it’s interesting that this actress/character is only one of two who does not use ASL. Instead, closed-captioning is provided by Will Cotter, enabling hearing-impaired audiences to fully understand everything being said. The boyishly handsome Jeff Kurysz is the other actor who doesn’t sign his dialogue, neither as Tybalt, Juliet’s hot-headed cousin, nor as her self-absorbed suitor, Paris. The dichotomy of theatrical styles is, in itself, uniquely fascinating to experience.
But this production really belongs to the two brilliant actors in the title roles. McKenna Liesman, who surprisingly isn’t hearing-impaired all, but speaks here entirely through ASL, is luminous as Juliet. At times resembling a lovely, young Claire Danes (who coincidentally played Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed 1996 film adaptation), Ms. Liesman boasts an impressive theatrical resume, and is currently training to be an ASL interpreter at Columbia College. But beyond all of these accomplishments, McKenna is simply exquisite as this ill-fated young woman. Sometimes her adolescent Juliet is childish and petulant, often curious and adventurous, occasionally defiant of authority and, in the very best moments of this production, consumed with passion. The highlight of this daring performance are the soundless love scenes performed by Ms. Liesman and her talented, handsome young acting partner, Brendan Connelly, as Romeo. Mr. Connelly is making his professional theatre debut in this challenging role and has only a few acting credits in his background. But no one would know this by the actor’s honest portrayal of the eloquent, headstrong and loving young teenager who’s found his perfect match in a rival family. Expressing so much through sign language, his facial expressions and his entire body, this young man (who’s studying to become a physical therapist) has a definite gift that should be further explored. Mr. Sawyer’s casting of these two superb actors and the terrific performances he draws out of them, are the best reasons to see this new bilingual production.
Thanks, in part, to the recent notoriety of California’s terrific Deaf West Theatre, and their inspiringly beautiful hit Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening,” this production is not only exceptional in every way, it’s also au courant. Most theatergoers will probably know or have at least studied Shakespeare’s beautiful tragedy; but this production about literature’s most famous pair of star-crossed lovers makes the story feel fresh, intimate and very contemporary. The production pulsates with passion and, at only 90 minutes in length, will entertain and move audiences far more than anything else currently playing in the Windy City this Fall. It’s a production that deserves its sold-out audiences and that should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 24-December 15 by the Red Theater and the Oracle Theater at their space, 3809 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are free, but reservations are highly recommended by calling 773-224-2980, or 252-220-0269, or by going to www.oracletheatre.org. Donations to
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.