Emilia Di Luca
As the house lights dim, I sit in the Berkeley Street Theatre and prepare my eyes for a language foreign to me. Within the first minutes I see no sign language, just a loud family. I didn’t know to prepare my ears for bickering and shouting.
Canadian Stage presents Nina Raine’s Tribes, an award winning play that does a lot of talking—verbal and non-verbal; when characters don’t speak with words, they use American Sign Language (ASL). Tribes zooms in on a dysfunctional British household, and amid the constant arguing from parents (Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk) and siblings (Patricia Fagan and Dylan Trowbridge) is the youngest son, Billy (Stephen Drabicki). Billy is deaf and yet, he has grown up in a family that does not know sign language.
On the other hand, Sylvia (Holly Lewis), a woman who is going deaf, is proficient in ASL. When she stumbles into Billy’s life, he falls in love with her. Sylvia meets his chaotic family and the hearing and deaf worlds collide, as Billy refuses to speak until his family learns sign.
Bringing ASL to mainstream theatre, Tribes is a journey of identity through the exploration of language and its limits. Speech and ASL are not, however, the only means of communication that Raine tackles. Under the direction of Daryl Cloran, Tribes uses theatre to speak to the tribe watching—the audience.
Behind a dining table, sits the heart of the set, a blue wall, designed by Lorenzo Savoini. The wall does not merely separate rooms; it connects languages like a translator. It translates the unspoken into words, namely ASL, via projections. It even translates the piano’s music as coloured lights. When words don’t communicate, music does.
Composer and sound designer Richard Feren relies on classical music and even a Disney classic. The iconic songs remind the audience of those who can and cannot enjoy music because of physical barriers. Billy’s isolation also resonates through sound; when Billy removes his hearing aids, everything sounds as though you are under water—voices jumble, time slows. When music doesn’t communicate the emotions, the audience relies on the actors.
The ensemble has more chemistry with the audience than with each other. We feel the struggle as Daniel spits his words as he stutters. We roar in laughter when Billy translates, in ASL, a metaphor about a cement cock. Yet, timing and even accents were off. Some key moments required more time, such as the awkward moment with the tulips, or the sad moment during the break-up. The production uses words, music, and sign language effectively, but forgets that silence is a tool for communication, too.
Still, the production lends a voice to sign language, in an art dominated by sound. Tribes takes advantage of theatre’s visual nature to highlight sign. Underneath all of the shouting is a play about communication. All tribes are welcome to hear Raine’s message and share it in any language they choose.
Tribes runs until March 2nd at The Berkeley Street Theatre. Canadian Stage also performs two ASL interpreted shows (February 7th and 9th). Tickets are available by phone at 416.368.3110 or online at https://www.canadianstage.com/online/default.asp.
photo credit: David Hou
featured in photo: Stephen Drabicki and Holly Lewis