BWW Review: Intimate and Sexually Insightful THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER by Deaf West
THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER by English screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival prior to an acclaimed run at England's National Theatre. The two-person drama focuses on a very candid, uninhibited and visceral examination of a couple's relationship revealed through their lovemaking, offering a startlingly intimate portrait of their marriage.
The play's American premiere is now taking place at Inner City Arts, presented by Deaf West Theatre which was founded in Los Angeles in 1991 to engage artists and audiences in unparalleled theater experiences inspired by Deaf culture and the expressive power of sign language. Their signature style of presenting innovative theatre by weaving ASL with spoken English to create a seamless ballet of movement and voice offers a unique and unparalleled theatrical experience for all audience members.
Deaf West's THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER features Sandra Mae Frank (the extraordinary deaf actor who starred as Wendla in all three of their Spring Awakening productions at Inner-City Arts, at the Wallis and on Broadway) as Alice, who uses ASL to communicate along with deaf actor Tad Cooley who portrays Phil, although his character was not written as hearing-impaired in the script. Speaking actors Natalie Camunas and Nick Apostolina give voice to Alice and Phil's most private thoughts, both in and out of bed, by shadowing the actors and often portraying other characters being described during Alice and Phil's ASL conversations, with the quartet's true partnership presenting both characters visually and verbally to perfection.
Jumping back and forth in time, Alice and Phil take us along on their journey from the moment they met through getting to know each other while dating, both the good and the bad times, through their marriage and the hardship of losing their first baby just before birth which almost destroyed their relationship. Frank is a wonder in that most catastrophic of scenes, her facial expressions and body language saying all that needs to be said to convey the overwhelming emotional and physical pain Alice has to endure, while Camunas voices Alice's painful experience.
But there is also humor in their story since scenes are told from the inner perspective of both characters at the same time, often describing to the audience what they are feeling from very different perspectives. This is especially during their lovemaking scenes in which Phil shares how confident he is in making love to his wife, while Alice shares a rather different opinion of his skills with the audience at the same time, each stepping out of bed to be sure the other does not "hear" or "see" their thoughts.
Adds Deaf West artistic director David J. Kurs, "THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER was written to be performed by two speaking actors, even though one of the characters is written as Deaf. This is that rare play that is made better by the addition of sign language: the 'bedroom speak' is intensely visual, a quality that also brings greater clarity to critical events as they unfold. It's an extraordinary look behind the curtain."
The show's director Randee Trabitz shares, "This is the perfect company for this show. In the (literal) hands of these actors, the play becomes a visual dance that echoes the trajectory of the story." This is especially true given the amazing skill of Frank and Cooley to communicate not only their thoughts but the real emotions behind every one of their reactions to each other using their hands and body movements rather than the words being spoken by Camunas and Apostolina whose movements are only incorporated as the duo's supporting stage crew.
Ultimately, THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER is a universal story of the battle of the sexes, or should I say couples, no matter whatever physical differences are part of their lives. The real question is, if honesty is the best policy, why is it we are so afraid to really tell the truth to each other, especially when not doing so affects our own happiness? The play does not give easy answers, but offers a real chance to contemplate the beauty of physical movement to tell such an intimate story.
Kudos to the entire Deaf West creative team, including ASL Master Linda Bove and rehearsal interpreter Elli Streifer for contributing to the seamless effect of the dual language scenes, scenic designer Sean Fanning whose upright bed allows us to peer down at Alice and Phil in their most intimate moments; and lighting designer Derrick McDaniel, sound designer Noelle Hoffman, and projection designer Heather Fipps who create wondrous ways in which we "hear" and "see" the actors tell their stories.
THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through October 13 in the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, located at 720 Kohler Street in downtown L.A. (just south of the Arts District). There will be two ASL Nights: arrive one-half hour prior to the performance on Thursday, Sept. 19 or on Thursday, Sept. 26 for a 15-minute ASL workshop that teaches signs used in the play. Ticket prices range from $38.50 to $75.00, with discounts available for students with valid ID; check website for details. For reservations and information, call (818) 762-2998 (voice) or go to www.deafwest.org. The play deals with adult themes and contains sexually graphic language, and is recommended for mature audiences only.
Photo credit: Iris Schneider and Brandon Simmoneau