BWW Reviews: Epic's TRIBES a Resounding Success
There's a ton of dysfunctional family dramadies in Contemporary Theatre right now, and even on local stages competing against each other - but nothing is like Epic Theatre Company's latest production, "Tribes." The story, written by Nina Raine, is a familiar one: The youngest son of a turbulent family feels out of place, and falls in love with someone his family might not approve of. The twist here, is that embedded in a familiar story is one that is completely foreign to most of us, in that the son in question was born deaf.
The play's structure is almost conventional, with the exception of its fascinating use of language. Billy, our deaf protagonist, is played by Joseph Ausanio, who is himself deaf. His love interest Sylvia, a wonderful Stephanie Traversa, is losing her hearing but is fluent in Sign Language, due to her having been raised by deaf parents. The two speak via spoken word, sign language, lip reading, and body language - the unspoken bits shared with the audience via an ingenious projection system - and the result is beyond engaging. As an audience member, you must sit forward and engage all your senses, just as our two leads must, to keep up with the rapid-fire script.
And that script is full of fascinating goodies, if you're lucky enough to catch them all as they fly by. Little philosophical truths are spouted for the audience's consumption: "Nothing unites two people like bitching about a third," comments one character to a chorus of laughter and sighs of agreement from the audience. Another character comments that "the whole point of art is to put emotions into words, so we know how to feel them." The script is full of Shavian ideas - a character throws a grenade of an thought into the room, then walks away from it to see what will happen.
The intricate script has plenty to say about language. There are countless lines talking about volume, whispering, singing, and music. The auditory references in the script are numerous, and often almost thrown away, leaving the audience to pick up on them without being spoonfed. There's a beautiful moment where ASL is used as poetry, and it's captivating. On the other end of the spectrum, there's a moment involving a "cement mixer" joke that utilizes spoken word, projected subtitles, ASL, and body language all at once, and is easily the biggest laugh of the show.
This is not to say that the script is infallible. There are many subplots, which can slow down the action at times and cloud the true purpose of the play. Issues are raised and then dropped, and there's an entire plot point in the second act, that I won't ruin for you, that only gets roughly 10 minutes of stage time but could make a fascinating full-length play in and of itself. If some of these subplots and tangents had been edited down, the play would be more streamlined, but with less depth of character, and so one forgives its meandering nature.
The script can be a bit uneven in pacing, but the acting job put on by this group, deftly directed by TJ Curran, more than makes up for it. As Billy, Ausanio shows depth and heart, showcasing a naivety that makes him easy to root for. The family members, played by Carol Schlink, Geoff White, and Blanche Case, all hold their own as supporting players - most of them don't have a huge hand to play in the plot, but all have strong characterization and have the difficult task of letting underlying love shine through a prickly exterior. Of particular note here is C.T. Larsen, who is as close to an antagonist for Billy as the play has. As Billy's brother Daniel, Larsen must carry the brunt of the darkest comedic lines, as well as the deepest melodrama in the show. He does this expertly, and his scenes with Billy alone are heartbreaking. As Sylvia, though, Stephanie Traversa is nothing short of revelatory. She's vulnerable, funny, and always subtle; a clear foil for the bombast and chaos of Billy's family. Equally impressive is her ability with ASL: her hands fly through the signs, dexterously and confidently - you'd never guess that she just started learning a few weeks ago.
Tribes is not a perfect script, and it's not always easy to follow, but TJ Curran and Epic Theatre company have given us a unique performance, populated by not-inherently-likeable characters that at their core still have a heart. This isn't a play about a deaf boy who doesn't fit in; rather, this is a story about a family struggling to understand each other. To see whether or not they do, in the end, you'll have to see it for yourself.