BWW Reviews: In FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, Deaf West Theatre Weaves American Sign Language With Spoken English
It is easy to equate this play with Romeo and Juliet in that if you read the book or saw the 1968 movie "Charly" for which Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award as Best Actor playing the title role, you know the sad ending is inevitable. But when you see it done brilliantly, it lifts the sadness and replaces it with wonder and awe at the actors' skill in baring their souls and allowing their emotions to flow freely, taking us for a memorable ride with them.
Such was my experience at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks watching the remarkable performance of Daniel N. Durant as Charlie in the Deaf West production of FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, directed with depth and true insight by Matthew McCray. While Durant does not speak, he signs and thoroughly acts out his dialogue with his entire body as he takes Charlie from being institutionalized with an IQ of 68 (with Sean Eaton symbiotically speaking his dialogue) to an all-knowing adult genius (voiced by Josh Breslow).
In a very poignant moment when all three are center stage, Durant muses about his past and future selves as Eaton and Breslow speak the lines, and with the smallest of gestures, each make it a full-blown expression of Charlie's warring mind - a vision I will not soon forget.
The story is told through a series of journal entries written by the story's protagonist, Charlie Gordon, who works a menial job as a janitor and deliveryman in a bakery. We meet him as his teacher, Alice Kinnian (Hillary Baack, both speaking and signing her role with heartfelt emotion), brings Charlie to a medical lab where he is selected to undergo an experimental surgical procedure to increase his intelligence. The technique had already been successfully tested on Algernon, a laboratory mouse (real live mouse, Cherry Snowdrop, making her stage debut).
The surgery on Charlie is also a success and his IQ triples. Most interesting to me - the first sign his intelligence is increasing happens when he starts to question authority. And in a unique Deaf West Theatre twist on the story, Charlie learns to celebrate his deaf identity and becomes a master of ASL, a "super-signer." I truly believe Daniel N. Durant owns that title in real life, given his amazing performance in this production.
But not only does Cahrlie's mental capacity change - so does his life. Suddenly, Charlie must deal with his blossoming love for his former teacher (Hillary Baack); the uncovered memory of how he was treated as a child by his mother (Sarah Lilly) and sister (Crystal Lott); the complications that arise when his own intelligence exceeds that of his employer (Melanie H. Vansell) and his doctors (Charles Katz, Bruce Katzman and Alek Lev); and conflicting emotions regarding his own former, childhood self. But when Algernon starts to exhibit distressing signs that his new-found intelligence is fading, Charlie knows his own fate is sealed.
Like all Deaf West Theatre productions, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON weaves American Sign Language (ASL) with spoken English throughout the play to create a seamless ballet of movement and voice. To facilitate the fluidity of movement from scene to scene as well as allowing for projections of video and text designed by Adam Flemming, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick and scenic designer Sarah Krainin created a set of modular transparent screens which the actors move to create new rooms/places with just a few basic chairs, tables, a couch and many environmentally-appropriate props (kudos to Katherine S. Hunt). Sound designer Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski effectively rumbles your consciousness with a low pulsating beat, almost like a heartbeat or soul trying to break free.
In Deaf West's production, deafness becomes a metaphor for the ongoing "disability vs. difference" debate. "Because our natural intelligence is often masked, Charlie's experience is similar in some ways to that of the average deaf person," Artistic Director DJ Kurs explains. In his program notes, Kurs shares a quote from Jesse Jackson during the Deaf President Now movement in 1988; "The problem is not that the (deaf) students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen."
I can assure you under Kurs' leadership (he is the second Deaf West artistic director in the company's 23-year history), everyone will continue to listen, with or without words, to the brilliant work of Deaf West Theatre.
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON presented by Deaf West Theatre
Written by David Rogers, Inspired by the book by Daniel Keyes
Directed by Matthew McCray
Starring Hillary Baack, Josh Breslow, Daniel Durant, Sean Easton, Karla Gutierrez, Charles Katz,Bruce Katzman, Alek Lev, Sarah Lilly, Crystal Lott, Shanna Sorrells, Melanie H. Vansell
Produced by: David J. Kurs and Laura Hill
Performances through Nov. 3 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm
*ASL Nights every Thursday in October:: arrive at 7:30 pm for a ½ hour ASL workshop that teaches signs used in the play.
Deaf West Theatre @ the Whitefire Theatre
13500 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
General admission: $30
Students with ID: $20 "back to school" special through Oct. 13 only
Sunday, Oct 13 at 2 p.m.: Pay-what you-can
Call (818) 762-2998 or www.deafwest.org