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Plays to operas to farce

The National Theatre of the Deaf updates, combines and puts its dexterous twist on 'Barber of Seville' and 'Marriage of Figaro.'

October 24, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

The National Theatre of the Deaf has taken two plays best known for their operatic versions, "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro," and turned them into a deaf-themed farce, "Oh, Figaro!"

Unlike Deaf West Theatre's recent "Big River," this is not an attempt to stage musical theater in both voiced English and American Sign Language.

The original Pierre de Beaumarchais plays from 1775 and 1784, not the Rossini and Mozart operas, are the sources of "Oh, Figaro!" And the plays have been adapted and updated from 17th century Spain to contemporary New York by John Augustine and Willy Conley.

The first act, based on "Barber of Seville," takes place outside Figaro's barber shop and bodega in Spanish Harlem, while the second act, based on "Marriage of Figaro," is set at the Hamptons house of the wealthy Viva (Count Almaviva in the original).

The updating is a problem. Some plot twists are relics that don't fit comfortably into the 21st century. An older woman makes marriage the condition to a loan she offers a younger man -- and then learns she's his long-lost mother. Lovers in masks disguise their identity to foil a mate's would-be infidelity. Such conventions are easier to accept in their original context.

The plot surely isn't the main point of this production, however. The overriding interests of the company and director Sheryl Kaller appear to be the opportunities to demonstrate the company's overall dexterity and to insert a string of deaf- and sign language-oriented jokes into this antique text, primarily for the amusement of the deaf audience.

The majority of the audience at the tour's first local stop -- on Wednesday at the Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge -- appeared to be deaf, judging from the number of sign-language conversations taking place before the show and during intermission. The tour stops tonight at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance.

The dexterity on display is both physical and vocal. Hearing and speaking actors translate the sign language -- often as they stand on the sidelines, sometimes while they are thrust into the center of the action.

The most amusing example of the latter is in the second act. Dennis Webster, all puffed-up pride as the cocky philanderer Viva, is voice-interpreted by the versatile Christopher Pollard Meyer. Meyer also plays the pool boy who is Viva's primary rival in the bedroom shenanigans. So these two often go head to head, with Meyer speaking his adversary's lines even as he maintains his own character's point of view.

More often, however, the spotlight is only on the deaf actors. Tall and gangly Garrett Bose is an appealingly scrappy Figaro (voiced by Rene Lewis), with Claudia Liolios as his svelte and assertive Suzanna (voiced by Elizabeth Alice Murray).

Fred Beam plays the prissy Dr. Bart (also voiced by Meyer), who will marry the Spanish immigrant Rosa (Anna Bitencourt, voiced by Marina Re) -- if she becomes a citizen. Shanny Mow plays her citizenship coach in Act 1 and Viva's sometimes tipsy gardener in Act 2 (both roles voiced by Lewis). Re portrays the older woman who wants to marry Figaro.

The adaptation is strewn with deaf-specific references such as the "Day of the Deaf" (instead of "Dead"). Rosa compares her own "elegant" sign language to Suzanna's "earthy" variety.

"Did I just hear the toilet flush?" asks one deaf character. "I don't know; I'm deaf," replies another.

No doubt even the nondeaf members of the audience understand most of the sight gags that involve sexual gestures.

The production never enters the realm of uncontrollable laughter that is the aim of most farce, nor do Beaumarchais' attacks on upper-class nonsense carry any weight in this extremely artificial update. But "Oh, Figaro!" works as a showcase for some nimble actors and as fertile soil for some deaf-specific humor.


"Oh, Figaro!"


Where: James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance

When: Tonight, 8

Price: $27

Contact: (310) 781-7171

Running time: 2 hours

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