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A Powerful, Poignant 'Of Mice and Men' at Deaf West

October 14, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES

After establishing itself with bold reinterpretations of such plays as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and " 'night, Mother" in explicitly hearing-impaired contexts, Deaf West Theatre Company has achieved sufficient acceptance and stature to tackle John Steinbeck's classic "Of Mice and Men" in sign language without alterations, much less excuses.

And why not? Even for hearing audience members, having live audio translation simulcast through cordless headsets isn't much different from watching opera or foreign films with subtitles--once you get used to the rules, you stop noticing the artifice.

Provided the material is sufficiently engaging, that is--and Stephen Rothman's powerful staging handily fills the bill in this regard. The production's centerpiece is a riveting performance by Paul Raci as George, the wiry drifter driven by tragedy to the ultimate act of loyalty for his retarded traveling companion Lenny (Troy Kostur, who eloquently evokes both the innocence and ignorance that confine Lenny to a world of his own).

Compared to the inherent abstraction of spoken language, feelings lie much closer to the surface in signed gestures, and that emotional expressiveness proves particularly well-suited to Steinbeck's story with its decidedly non-intellectual, heartfelt pitch to our longings for human connection.

Given heightened resonance in the casting mix of deaf and hearing actors is the recurring theme of alienation--not just in Lenny, but in other outcast characters as well (like Jeffrey A. Gunter's cynical hunchback, forced to live in the barn because he's black, or the lonely foreman's wife (Cami Varela) reviled by the ranch hands for her flirty ways), the performances ache with the poignancy and insight born of isolation.

There's also a sly reversal at work in equipping viewers with headsets to compensate for their inability to read sign--it makes you stop to wonder just exactly who has the handicap in this theater.

* "Of Mice and Men," Deaf West Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays (except Nov. 12) and Sundays, 3 p.m. (8 p.m. on Nov. 13). Ends Nov. 13. $15. (213) 660-4673/TDD: (213) 660-8826. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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