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Deaf Audience Members Offer Critiques on Deaf West's SPRING AWAKENING

While hearing audience members who aren't fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) can certainly appreciate the significance of Broadway's Deaf West Theatre Company revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's SPRING AWAKENING, there are naturally nuances of the production more apt to be noticed by Deaf audience members.

Originally opening on Broadway in December of 2006, and winning that season's Tony Award for Best Musical, SPRING AWAKENING, based on German Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, seriously deals with issues of adolescence in a repressed society. Director Michael Arden's production, which utilizes ASL and casts each role with both a Deaf and a hearing actor, adds the layer of discrimination against the Deaf community.

The Guardian reports on sending six New Yorkers to see SPRING AWAKENING, five of them Deaf: Graduate student Kaj Kraus, actor/business consultant/educator Maleni Chaitoo, nanny Max Graham-Putter, American Sign Language professor Carmen King and Artistic Director for New York Deaf Theatre James Guido. One, actor and ASL-English interpreter Craig Fogel, is hearing.

A common reaction from the six was not only how much stronger the signing is when coming from members of the Deaf community, but how their expertise in signing gives added textures to their acting performances.

"Much like hearing people who go to the theater and remark when Kelli O'Hara or Idina Menzel's voices evoke gasps," says Fogel, "I felt moved to laughter, tears, and astonishment by the signing of certain Deaf actors in particular moments."

"The captivating native ASL signer Treshelle Edmond performs phenomenally," says King, "as does her fellow ASL signer Daniel Durant as Moritz, who emotes and signs quickly and clearly."

King goes on to explain the importance of non-manual signal markers, facial expressions, to convey tone.

Guido adds, "The actors who have to use sim-com ("simultaneous communication" or speaking while signing) lose their facial expression by having to speak. So it is a little difficult to follow their emotions, especially while they're singing."

Some of the staging is criticized for placing and lighting actors in a way that makes their signing hard to read ("It was very clear that the play was designed for a hearing audience with a secondary intention of being accessible to the Deaf," says Graham-Putter) and Guido felt that it was unclear as to which characters were Deaf and which were hearing, but in all the production was praised for being accessible for both hearing and Deaf audiences.

Unless you're offended by bad language, sexual references and nudity," says Guido, "I'd recommend it to anyone."

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Deaf West Theatre's acclaimed production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's SPRING AWAKENING, directed by Michael Arden and choreographed by Spencer Liff, opened on Sunday night, September 27, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

SPRING AWAKENING, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2007, runs 18 weeks only, through Saturday, January 9. It will be performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken and sung in English by a cast of 28. Deaf West Theatre was last represented on Broadway with the triumphant production of Big River in 2003.

Based on Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 expressionist play of the same name and featuring an electrifying pop/rock score, SPRING AWAKENING follows the lives of a group of adolescents as they navigate their journey from adolescence to adulthood in a fusion of morality, sexuality and rock & roll. An extraordinary creative team including Michael Arden and Spencer Liff has reinvented the groundbreaking musical about lost innocence and the struggles of youth in true Deaf West style.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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From This Author Michael Dale