In recent years there has been a marked uptick in collaborations between the DC professional theater community and Gallaudet University, the famed local school for the deaf. I’ve been a proponent and something of a cheerleader of this trend, even previously writing a feature on Faction of Fools’ production of sign language-infused Shakespeare commedia adaptation Hamlecchino not long ago. I am a big fan of the integration of sign language into otherwise hearing productions.
Interestingly, none of the productions that I have seen have directly addressed deaf issues. So know that I have been extremely excited about the possibilities of Visible Language, Mary Resing and Andy Welchel’s brand new musical about the 19th-century fight for the soul of deaf education, centered at the college that would one day become Gallaudet. It is incredibly encouraging to see a new musical developed right here at home about a little known chapter in District history.
The level of difficulty that director Tom Prewitt and the rest of the Avant Bard team is working with here is off the chart. Visible Language is essentially a bilingual musical, with a mix of deaf and hearing actors, with all of the deaf actors, and most of the hearing, performing simultaneously in English and American Sign Language. A cast of near twenty is packed onto Ethan Sinnott’s detailed set, with bonus full band on a balcony above. Avant Bard and Gallaudet are to be commended for the sheer guts it took to undertake this collaboration at all. One hopes that they will continue to develop the piece over the course of the run and perhaps beyond. As of Friday’s opening night, however, it was clear that Visible Language is not ready for prime time.
The problems begin with Resing’s book, which centers on the battle of technique and will between guest lecturer Alexander Graham Bell (Harv Lester), who endorsed and taught a system called “Visible Speech” in which the deaf were taught to speak through a close study of the movements of the mouth, and the college’s (eventually eponymous) president Edward Miner Gallaudet (Tom Baldridge) who focused on the development of sign language. You can probably guess whose side the story takes.
I take absolutely no issue with the show’s political and cultural allegiances, but rather the method by which they are expressed. Much of the dialogue and lyrics in Visible Language is purely expository, its characters speak largely in declaratives about recent events, their family entanglements, and their professional histories. It has sort of an edutainment vibe, with Great Men standing in place and describing their own accomplishments, with the occasional ragtime ditty thrown in. But the need to pound the facts and figures into our heads overshadows the passionate debate on which the play should be focused.
The battle between Bell and Gallaudet is personified in the arrival to campus of one Helen Keller (Miranda Medugno) and from this moment forward the plot diverges from being about the development of sign language at Gallaudet to being largely about Bell’s efforts to teach the famously blind and deaf Keller to speak in nine days in order to win a bet. This plotline leads to Visible Language’s worst and best moments, featuring an awkwardly reprised song about the wonders of being allowed to teach such a student, but redeems itself with a bravura climactic setpiece for Medugno.
Other divergences include a congressional appropriations committee meeting that goes predictably awry and Keller’s tours around town to visit various feminist icons of the time. These scenes do provide some lovely moments, including a powerful vocal performance from Lisa Anne Bailey as First Lady Carrie Harrison and Sarah Anne Sillers giving some conflicted shading to Keller’s oft-ignored and professionally frustrated interpreter Anne Sullivan.
The problems extend to the production itself. At several points in Friday night’s opening performance it was painfully clear that several cast members, including Baldridge and Lester, the show’s two ostensible leads, were struggling with their lines and blocking. Again, I stress the difficulty curve: many of the performers are essentially acting in two languages at once. Two languages that do not necessarily translate word-for-word. Baldridge is, in fact, director of Gallaudet’s Business Administration department by day and was pretty clearly cast for his impressive ability to sign and speak at the same time with the bonus of being able to carry a tune. I respect that, but the production team had to know these actors were not ready and needed more rehearsal time. These are all very fixable issues and I sincerely hope by the time this review is published that they are.
Closes November 16, 2014
WSC Avant Bard at
The Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre,
800 Florida Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002
1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
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It seems like Resing and the rest of the Avant Bard team got so wrapped up in the cult of celebrity they lost track of the people who should be at the heart of the story: the students whose lives would be forever changed by the education they receive. Everybody knows who Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller are, their stories have largely been told. I wanted so badly to learn more about the culture on campus and the students whose education and futures were being used as bargaining chips.
It’s a shame that the student body is relegated to what largely amounts to a chorus, because during the all too brief moments when Visible Language focuses on their struggle to communicate, the show comes magically, daringly, vibrantly alive. Briefly, Visible Language becomes as powerful and enlightening as most anything I’ve seen on stage in DC this year. The breakout performer of the night is Aarron Loggins as Ennals Adams Jr., Gallaudet’s star pupil who dreams of joining the college’s teaching staff. Loggins, born deaf, is a video artist, known for his ASL interpretations of R&B songs. He so eloquently expresses Adams’ struggle to thrive while playing by the rules set down by men with far more privilege (but not necessarily more talent) than he, and the sense of loss when that faith is betrayed is palpable. I encourage you go check out his work here for a taste of his expressiveness.
Visible Language has a lot going for it, primarily a passionate and and talented group of artists who so clearly want this show to be an important moment. I fear they got so caught up in the hugeness of the endeavor that they lost sight of the details and the chance to tell the stories of some of DC’s more hidden heroes.
Visible Language . Book and Lyrics by Mary Resing . Music by Andy Welchel . Director: Tom Prewitt . Musical Director: Elisa Rosman . Featuring: Tom Baldridge, Harv Lester, Lisa Anne Bailey, Adam Bartley, Mikey Cafarelli, John Cartwright II, Tyresha Collins, Lewis Freeman, Kari Ginsburg, Brady Humphrey, Aarron Loggins, Jose Martinez, Miranda Medugno, Sarah Anne Sillers, Emily Stemper, Jaclyn Young . Stage Manager: Kathryn Dooley . Set Designer: Ethan Sinnott . Lighting Designer: Annie Wiegand . Costume Designer: Elizabeth Ennis . Assistant Costume Designer: Lauren Lentini . Sound Designer: Neil McFadden . Properties Designer: Kevin Laughon .
Production Manager: Lena Salins . Director of Artistic Sign Language: Aaron Kubey . Visual Dramaturg: Willy Conley . Assistant Directors: Charlie Ainsworth, Tyler Herman . Assistant Stage Manager: Victoria LeBlanc . Technical Director: Jacob Fisher . Assistant Technical Director: Nate Eubanks . Produced by WSC Avant Bard and Gallaudet University . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Closes Nov 16
Chris Klimek . City Paper it would be disingenuous to say the artists have solved all or even most of the daunting problems they’ve assigned themselves.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post Mary Resing’s script and Andy Welchel’s bright, jaunty songs (with lyrics by Resing) make plain how deep and personal the issue is.
Ellen Burns . BroadwayWorld lacks a certain polish, and is in need of editing and focus that I think the story requires and deserves, it is an important and enlightening work
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts Combining history with entertainment is never easy: it’s a balancing act, and Mary Resing has done an admirable job
Tina Ghandchilar . MDTheatreGuide on the whole there were many beautifully highlighted moments.