by Leah Miller
Deaf West Theatre and Forest of Arden’s bilingual production of “Spring Awakening” is not to be missed. Whether you’re a casual consumer of theater or a die-hard fan of the show, this production is a necessary viewing – it is absolutely stunning and thought-provoking. You might think it is too soon to be reviving a show that’s barely out of diapers, winning the Tony for Best Musical in 2007, but this production is entirely new and much more important. The show already deals with lots of heavy topics, but at its core, it’s a show about communication and lack thereof and what that means during adolescence.
These themes are amplified beautifully by the addition of Deafness to the plot and by Michael Arden’s quality directing. The show is presented in both American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Various characters are Deaf but are voiced by members of the band. The words and feelings are accessible to both Deaf and hearing audiences at all times in various ways. Generally the words are spoken and signed simultaneously, either by one person or by a Deaf actor and their hearing counterpart. The Deaf actors are the ones in the spotlight, making eye contact with the other actors and facing the audience. The partners build a beautiful relationship, and it’s used in very interesting ways that break the fourth wall. A handful of times, the scenes are entirely signed or spoken with engaging projections on the back walls of the set. It is interesting to note the deliberate choices that clearly went into deciding how each moment might be accessible in different ways. There are some extremely powerful moments in the midst of larger scenes where one specific line is silently signed for emphasis or a Deaf actor vocalizes a painful word in the middle of a larger signed scene.
This innovative theater company opens the door to amazing conversations about Deaf culture and exposing the lucky theater-goer to the beauty and intricacy of ASL. This innovation is exciting both in that it makes Broadway more accessible and exciting to a branch of fans who might never have gone to the theater otherwise, and in its exposure of a vibrant culture, both in the world of the musical and in the cast and crew backstage.
Spring Awakening is playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on 256 West 47th St.
Leah Miller is a Contributing Writer. Email her at email@example.com.