From the land that gave birth to Copernicus, Chopin, Curie and the maternal side of my family also comes a production of “Ferdydurke,” from the novel by the reputed cult hero Witold Gombrowicz, at Santa Monica’s City Garage.
The hardworking performers in this production from Poland seem exquisitely trained — in acting, physical comedy and English as a second language. Their bodies take a beating, often self-inflicted, in this 90-minute romp through several nightmarish vignettes of life.
Describable as Mr. Bean meets Kafka, it shows man at his most comically repulsive. In the first scene, a bellowing teacher beseeches his three students to learn Latin because it teaches clarity of thought, precision of expression, as well as the art of war. The boys are bored and would rather engage in their own sophomoric antics of warlike aggression.
Despite the route imposed on the script — a theatrical version in Polish from the original novel, adapted into an English version, “freely based on a new translation of the novel, to be published” — language was not the source of this evening’s problems.
More incomprehensible was the audience this production gathered. Anyone who has been to opening night at a “smaller” theater knows about the claques — the friends and family of the actors, or even the director, who indulge in raucous, fake laughter to let the less intelligent members of the audience know we’re seeing a comedy.
Although the run at City Garage offered Polish-language nights, half this particular audience was Polish speaking. Next to me were two of the few taped-off seats in the house, usually reserved for VIPs, and these were taken by a Polish-speaking couple.
During the play, our “hero” put pantyhose on his head, and the Poles howled. Two sets of hairy male legs gave the impression of copulating bodies, and the Poles roared.
They didn’t laugh at the metaphoric references to classical literature. They didn’t seem troubled by the tragic morass the characters couldn’t escape. They instead began their hollow laughter the instant the lights rose on the performers.
After the play’s strangely abrupt conclusion, I started to exit the theater, having neither laughed during the performance nor cheered wildly during bows, when my neighbor grabbed my elbow and hissed, “You have no class.”
For having sat through an evening of listening to grown men expel air from various orifices, pick their noses and display the byproduct to the audience, and raise school desks by the sheer anatomical force of their sexual excitement, I can understand his harsh appraisal.
Meanwhile, may I suggest to theater claques the world over: Play a laugh track and save your throats.
For Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Deaf West Theatre production creates a deaf quarter of New Orleans, into which a hearing Blanche Dubois comes to visit her deaf sister, Stella, married to a deaf Stanley, whose poker buddies include a deaf Mitch. There’s no pretending the characters are hearing; they just live in a deaf world, and except for one line in Williams’ original script, it works perfectly.
Here is ensemble acting at its epitome. There are no small actors, even in the bit parts. Signing actors are voiced over by hearing actors who speak the lines. The speaking actors work carefully, allowing signing to begin early enough for the physical reaction of the deaf actor to culminate at the point to be emphasized.
Suanne Spoke is the speaking and signing Blanche, in an intense, complex portrayal. Terrylene is the signing Stella, a glowing actor of natural reactions; she is voiced by Maureen Davis. Troy M. Kotsur is the signing Stanley, voiced by a keenly attentive John Ireland. Bob Hiltermann is gentle as the ultimately disappointed Mitch, voiced by Phil Di Pietro.
The actors never merely face each other to sign. Directed by Deborah LaVine, they watch each other in mirrors, or peek out of the corners of their eyes, or momentarily turn away for an appropriate reason, as we expect to see in hearing theater. Instead of listening at the door as Williams’ stage directions suggest, the characters peek at one another through the screen door or kitchen window.
Leave it to theater of the deaf to offer a lesson in sound design. Production Coordinator and Sound Designer Bill O’Brien makes the floor of the theater reverberate from recorded music and vibrate when the streetcar passes by, so hearing-impaired audience members know what we hear. Not to worry, the sound is not too loud.
An onstage trumpet player entertains during the brief scene changes, deftly executed by the actors.
Set Designer Robert Steinberg and Lighting Designer Ken Booth make the place look humid, even if the theater’s air conditioning cools the audience.
Not incidentally, the sight lines of the theater are superb, with steeply raked seating that offers a clear, floor-to-second-story view of the stage.
One might prefer an interpretation of the play laden with sexual tension, foreboding and darkly passionate, from the moment Stanley and Blanche spot each other. None of this permeates Deaf West’s version of the play, even though Stanley still utters the famous line, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.”
Further, this Stanley and Stella are the cutest couple, loving and happy, except for a few slips of the tongue and fist by Stanley, and he seems delighted to have Blanche room with them. This Blanche is not the least frail, nor does she seem crazy. Yet she evokes a visceral reaction at the play’s end because her fate seems so unfair.
It is also a plausible interpretation if one considers it is the intrusion of the hearing world into the Kowalski home that shatters their peace.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” plays through this weekend, at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For schedule, telephone 818.762.2773; GTY No. 818.762.2787.