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An Albee Signing Party : Deaf actors, using gestures, and actor-interpreters stage the comedy 'Everything in the Garden.'

April 16, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Theatrical productions with deaf actors are nothing new to Los Angeles. There have been "The Gin Game" and "Shirley Valentine" (Deaf West), and a new deaf improv company at The Groundlings (Light Flashes).

There was even a seemingly improbable production a couple of years ago of Harold Pinter one-acts called "A Pinch of Pinter With a Twist." How could Pinter, with his meaningful pauses, be translated into sign language? It worked beautifully, and its director, Leslie Byrne, is now at the helm of another play that would seem to defy translation into American Sign Language: Edward Albee's "Everything in the Garden."

This new staging, playing at Burbank's Gene Bua Theatre, is attempting something a little different, however. Although Albee wordplay may seem as improbable as Pinter pauses in a deaf production, Jennifer Delora, producing for her own L. A. Bridges Theatre Company, seems to have found the solution.

"I almost didn't get the rights," Delora says. "They said they couldn't imagine this play being done in ASL. They almost said no to me."

The red-haired Delora--she's also known as Red Jenn--would seem to warn that you don't say no to her. But she got the rights and decided to take a new tack in the production.

Delora explains her infusion of deaf culture into Albee's house party comedy. "A lot of other deaf theater companies don't want unskilled actors who can't sign onstage. They're afraid that they'll offend the deaf audience. I disagree. We've set it up so that it's a deaf party in a deaf home, but we're having a mixture of friends over."

The result is not only a mix of deaf and hearing actors, but also a mix of levels of skill in signing ASL. It's what Delora calls "reality." Noting that Southern California has a very large deaf population, she points out the differences in sign language used by people from different parts of the country, very much like dialects in English.

The levels of signing skill are used to show a deaf culture with its own signals, mores, form.

Byrne says the actors are assuming those skill levels in their characterizations, "so the deaf audience will accept that this is a hearing person who recently learned ASL, and is not very skilled. The deaf audience will get an extra laugh out of that. You'll see the other actors react accordingly."

There will be actor-interpreters onstage for hearing audience members, so Albee's lines will be heard, but Delora and Byrne think the style they're using within the action will be just as interesting to hearing as to deaf viewers.

And it will be what Byrne says is "the first time in L. A. that audiences will see real deaf culture. You're going to see a lot of things that may seem a little odd for a hearing audience, like stamping of feet to attract attention. Many cultural things you would see in a deaf home, at a deaf party."

Delora, who was hard of hearing as a child, says her hearing decreased as she got older. She was raised in an oral family but prefers ASL. And 10 years ago, studying at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Art and playing Jenny in "Everything in the Garden," she never dreamed that one day she would form a deaf theater company. What she did dream of, "obsessing on it," she says, was someday playing Jenny again.

Delora is doing it in this production, at the same time trying to build one more bridge between the hearing and the deaf, between different cultures and languages, and different views of society.

Where and When What: "Everything in the Garden." Location: Gene Bua Theatre, 3435 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through May 9. Price: $15. Call: (213) 660-8587.

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