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Theater Reviews : 'An Italian Straw Hat' Is an Eyeful


"An Italian Straw Hat," the zany 19th-Century French farce by Eugene M. Labiche, has over the years been remade into an operetta, a movie, even several stage adaptations. Yet the language of this warhorse has probably never looked as good as in the winning new tour by the National Theatre of the Deaf.

The story--a silly bit of business about a bridegroom who struggles to make amends after his horse eats a lady's hat--has enough twists and turns to tax any company. Yet director-adapter Kenneth Albers has found bold ways to mix spoken and signed words, reaping humor and visual invention from what might have been a mannered, burdensome device.

The breakneck pacing demanded by farce sometimes overwhelms even this incredibly well-rehearsed cast. But for the most part, Albers' "Straw Hat" is still a treat for the eyes and, yes, ears.

A reviewer can only imagine how a person without hearing perceives the show (which played over the weekend at Occidental College and moves later this week to Rolling Hills Estates, San Diego and Costa Mesa). Many audience members at Occidental's Keck Theater signed their applause by raising their arms in the air and waving their fingers like so many rows of wheat.

The production has special charm for a viewer who can hear. Victor Becker's fairy-tale set is dominated by a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, which serves as the perch for Maestro (Ira Mitchell), a one-man synthesizer-and-drum band of director Albers' ingenious devise. Mitchell sails through the near-impossible job of providing music, sound effects and certain character voices during virtually every scene.

Maestro, along with the valet Felix (Brian K. Jennings), serves as the show's link to the aural world. Albers wittily drives home the point when Felix declines to step in and help a character with a broken leg, explaining, "Sorry, Frank, I'm just your voice." (Amazingly, this same character seems to have been given a French accent--in sign language.)

The sonic accompaniment just adds another rich layer to the show, which in its expressive movement and demonstrative acting reminds one of the silent film comedies of Chaplin or Keaton.

As the rich hero Fadinard, Robert DeMayo betrays his training as a mime with a beautifully acrobatic performance. His eyes alone say more than most actors' entire bodies. Meanwhile, Anthony Natale steals his scenes as Achille, a fey poser in a blonde wig.

General audiences may be tempted to shun a work like this one because of the company's name. But notice that it's a troupe of the deaf, not exclusively for the deaf. Anyone with an abiding interest in theater should see what they have to say.

* "An Italian Straw Hat," Thursday-Friday at Norris Theatre, Rolling Hills Estates, (310) 544-0403; Saturday at UC-San Diego, (619) 534-6467; and Sunday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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