Let’s agree on one thing: Deaf West’s excellent Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening” is a fine production currently showing at the Brooks Atkinson theatre in a limited run. The sets and lights are magnificent. The staging is right. The actors are completely superb. The effort is noble, but perhaps, imperfect in the execution of its essence, and it is in that vacuum of those slight flaws in amber that this review reflects — to make you think and wonder in preservation and ponder beyond the simple joy of watching a few Deaf actors on a live Broadway stage.
I’ve written many times about Deafness in performance here in — David Boles, Blogs — and so I am preternaturally required to not only love Spring Awakening, but to also rightly question some of the directorial cultural choices made in the staging of the right revival.
I am making focused, precise, comments here that may not speak to a wide audience in review — but if you’re a theatre professional, or if you’ve seen the Deaf West Spring Awakening revival, then you’ll understand these matters of importance in clarity and cohesion.
In the realm of what we’ll call “The World of the Play” there is some confusion as to where we are and what’s happening. Are we in 2015 or in 1891 when the original play was written?
It appears the production is having it both ways with olden times costumes and dialogue while modern musical instruments — and lyrics like “fuck it” — and a modern mechanical wheelchair all pull focus from the past to present. Yes, some of that modernization is done by scoring an old play into a new musical, but most conflicts are Deaf West choices in production.
That split between attention and intention is confusing for the audience. Are we in the here and now or stuck in the sordid past when these sexual awakenings would actually have a shocking memeing in a paternalistic society?
I argue the time must be 1891 in order for the shock of the sexuality to resonate; a modern interpretation of an old morality does not sting with the same ferocity of the original audacity.
The wondering split of where we are in time and history is unnecessarily subconsciously confusing.
As the musical opens, the meme of Deaf actors and their “voicing” Doppelgängers is introduced — at least that’s how I took the passing of the instruments and other belongings through the looking glass mirror that was not there — from Deaf performer to voicing interpreter.
If the hearing performer is the Doppelgänger for the Deaf character performer, then the Doppelgänger cannot act alone without the direct intervention of the performer, right?
Too often, the Doppelgängers would move in their own space, in their own musical mind in silhouette, and along their own separate reality; and if the performer dies on stage then, so too, must the Doppelgänger for the story to make sense, right?
Not in the case of the Deaf West staging.
Doppelgängers have a life of their own beyond — and untethered from — the Deaf performer, and that creates misunderstanding of roles in the production as to who is living and who is dead and who is just changing characters and for what overall purpose?
The hearing Doppelgängers are important because they voice interpret for the Deaf performers and they often play a guitar live on stage or they use a handheld microphone to sing. They’re in the world of the musical, but in what role? Do they have a role beyond their shadow?
Why can’t the Deaf sign their own songs — with their own rhythm and movement — without Hearing involvement? Why must every song be traditionally voiced and musicalized with instruments?
Let the Deaf be Deaf and share their signed interpretation of the song without outside intervention!
Unless, of course, Spring Awakening is not a Broadway show for the Deaf or of the Deaf — in Spring Awakening, the Deaf are just there as a part of the overall Spectacle.
There are other double-dipping Doppelgängers who have their own character on stage only to turn around and voice for another character, and that is also especially confusing, because you don’t know who is speaking due to the non-directional, but universally surround-sounding, mic-ing of the production; so you’re looking at a Deaf character signing on one side of the stage, but the voice interpretation is drowning you out from all sides.
Directionality matters in American Sign Language and that includes the memetic rules of the traditional live stage.
There were also “fantasy spurts” during the musical when the story would stop and almost every character on stage would engage in singing/signing — and that also led to contextual confusion. Who is singing? Why are they singing? Why is the wasted talent of Marlee Matlin on stage playing air guitar from the stage left side balcony?
It’s unfortunate Deaf West couldn’t employ a 100% Deaf cast for the show because the hearing voice actors who sign tend to overshadow the Deaf performers — their booming, mic’d voices and instruments not only surround the audience, but drown us in volume — and it isn’t the Deaf’s fault that we cannot pinpoint their aspect on stage, it’s just the curse of the modern mechanism. The solution is to provide a non-amplified production. That evens the cultural playground.
That relativity of sound source is a universal problem on every Broadway stage where the power of your voice no longer matters because technology ruins the beauty of the natural voice via amplification — but in the case of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, the disparity between disabilities is more cruelly evident in who is mic’d and who is not.
There are three times in the musical when the director chose to have the Deaf actors use their real “Deaf voice” without the benefit of amplification or voice interpretation — and that, once again, begs the direct question, “Why?”
What was the point and the intention of the feeble-sounding, unadorned, Deaf voice on a live stage?
The Deaf in the audience had no idea the Deaf on stage were using their real voices — there was no visual indicator, on-stage open captioning, or other notification meme employed.
The hearing in the audience could barely hear the un-mic’d Deaf voice in the second mezzanine, and so everyone in the theatre was left to accept the real matter at hand was just to shock the Hearing audience with the raw sound of an un-mic’d Deaf voice on stage.
Not a great end effect, especially since the Deaf in the audience were wholly left out of those on stage Deaf moments. We expect more, and much more sensitivity, from Deaf West.
That sort of cultural pandering was unnecessary in the larger, universal, context of the stage and the staging. If you’re going to have the Deaf voice, then fairly mic them just like the hearing actors!
There was also a disconnect between the hearing singers and the Deaf signers. Here’s tangential example from a brief cabaret performance a couple of months before the production returned live to Broadway. Notice how the guitar player makes no eye contact or other connection with the Deaf performer and you ask yourself, while watching, who is following whom — and you realize, to be effective, the answer can never be, “both” even though that’s the obvious reconciliation. This backfiring of “TheDoppelgänger Effect” lives too obviously in the production:
Should the Deaf lead the hearing or should the hearing follow the Deaf? The answer is, and must always be, the Deaf performer leads — but that isn’t what happens in that video or on the live stage revival at the Brooks Atkinson — all to the greater memetic sorrow of the overall effectiveness of the telling.
Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is a finely staged Broadway reproduction with excellent acting and lovely singing — but there are a few storytelling memes that conflict with the comprehension of the purpose of the staging; and that disformity in cultural respect is what disables the entire production from the point of a cogent, and unifying, tensile drama.