As it stands, Ultrasound is a bit of a mixed emotional bag for me.
On the one hand, the story deaf playwright Adam Pottle is telling is both relevant and heartbreaking. It touches upon politics surrounding the deaf community – a topic very rarely spoken about in theatre. It is an important conversation that brings awareness to conflict and prejudice from both within and outside of that community.
It also successfully communicates the story through a fusion of voice, American Sign Language and subtitles that together depict an honest and fascinating exploration of the subject matter.
On the other hand, Ultrasound is a story about a relationship – that is the universal element of the show. But what we see is more of a hyperbolized summary of what an unhealthy relationship looks like, rather than the heart-in-my-throat impact I was hoping for. The couple has some sweet and tender moments and some moments of downright frustration, but their relationship as a whole seems as though it is missing a core.
I wondered throughout the whole show why Miranda (Elizabeth Morris) would ever be in love with her husband Alphonse (Chris Dodd) in the first place. I wanted to care about Alphonse. I wanted a moment where I could say “Ah, there’s the man she fell in love with.” Instead, we get the stereotypical unlovable coward for practically the entire duration of the show.
Here’s the story:
Miranda is hard of hearing. Alphonse is deaf. The two communicate through signing.
Now, this couple has the typical “Honey, I’m home,” patriarchal relationship. He is the breadwinner. She is an artist who is home much of the time. He arrives home from work and she helps him remove his blazer as he asks her what she’s making for dinner. And he is quite the control freak to boot.
Miranda is insistent on having a child. It’s all she wants to talk about. But Alphonse is very hesitant, evading her bombardment of questions time and time again, and we soon learn about his greatest fear: that he will have a hearing child and become a terrible father who is incapable of love because he feels disconnected from his baby.
And so ensues Alphonse’s backstory. We hear about the abuse he endured as a child because of his deafness and we hear about the friend who influences his perspectives on the struggles of preserving deaf culture and not bringing a hearing child into the world.
And it’s disturbing, really, because these situations are real, affective and traumatizing.
That’s why this dialogue matters. It takes us right into unsettling territory. It makes us feel dirty and uncomfortable and that’s how we know it’s doing its job.
As for the design elements in the show, Trevor Schwellnus’ set and lighting designs, paired with Cameron Davis’ projections, are effective in complementing the mood of each scene, while keeping the main focus on the characters’ unravelling relationship.
The stage is dressed with layers of scrim, lit from the front or back depending on the scene, which works well at transporting the characters through various locations, times of day, and types of weather, without the grand scene transitions.
The scrim is also used as a backdrop to project the subtitles onto (also designed by Schwellnus), which works well most of the time, save for a few instances where we lose a word behind an actor’s head.
All in all, Ultrasound is successful at diving head-first into powerful subject matter that deserves the spotlight. Where the onstage relationship may seem to be a stretch from the truth, the conversation is anything but.
Presented by Cahoots Theatre & Theatre Passe Muraille and directed by Marjorie Chan, Ultrasound is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace until May 15. For more information, visit passemuraille.ca.