Tribes: Kill the Wabbit

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“Despite all of the multi-layered wit, much of the play depends upon non-verbal communication by the cast.” — Epic Theatre’s Tribes at Theatre 82

The challenge of a play about tribal affiliation is that literally any arbitrary characteristic can be yanked out of thin air and turned into a criterion in order to draw a circle around some people and not others, defining who is in the tribe and who is not. This begins, for Tribes, in the opening announcement before the play even starts that masquerades as an innocuously conventional warning to the audience that there will be a pistol shot in the final act: it immediately creates an in-group who realizes, when that pistol shot finally comes, that it is a playful homage by playwright Nina Raine to her obvious influence Anton Chekhov and the theatrical trope known as “Chekhov’s gun,” first explained by him in a letter: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Such meta-witticism might be appreciated by academics and theater critics, but – and this is my point –  excludes those not of that particular tribe unless, luckily, a theater critic explains the joke in a review.

Billy (Joseph Ausanio) is born deaf into a hearing family. His parents, Christopher (Geoff White) and Beth (Carol Schlink), are a retired academic frustrated by his inability to do anything useful and an aspiring novelist frustrated by her inability to publish. His siblings temporarily reduced to living at home, Ruth (Blanche Case) and Daniel (C.T. Larsen), are an opera singer frustrated by her inability to get gigs of more than a few people in a small room and an aspiring academic frustrated by his inability to complete his thesis.

No one listens to anyone else, regardless of their ability to hear. Christopher is trying to learn Chinese wearing earphones that isolate him from what is going on in the room around him. Ruth is trying to learn to sing opera in French, a language she does not understand; the work in question is, ironically, Saint-Saëns’ “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” which literally means “My heart opens itself to your voice.” (I warned you about meta-witticisms.) Daniel, among other serious problems, is writing a thesis about communication that is so fluffed-up with over-the-top academic jargon that it is incoherent. The family members interact via argument, profanity, name-calling, ridicule and constant interruption – all except Billy who, due to his deafness, is unable to follow these heated exchanges and then is told, when he asks what happened after each storm blows over, that it was nothing.

Billy meets Sylvia (Stephanie Traversa), who works as an event coordinator for a deaf charity and is herself going deaf. She introduces him to sign language, which his family strongly resisted because the “bloody deaf community,” as Christopher puts it, with its own language is a rival tribe to that of the family. As Billy and Sylvia become romantically involved, they form something of a tribe of their own, him distancing himself from his family and her distancing herself from what she sees as the limited and parochial community of deaf people.

Eventually these people are forced to start listening to each other, or at least making the attempt to the best of their ability, and that changes a lot. Although the dialogue is often clever and funny, it carries tinges of viciousness that are hard to ignore and are not meant to be ignored. Daniel at one point attacks opera, and therefore implicitly Ruth, by ridiculing the work of Richard Wagner, the ultimate expositor of regressive and ignorant tribal primitivism in music; Beth cuts him off: “Of course it’s silly, it’s Wagner.”

Despite all of the multi-layered wit, much of the play depends upon non-verbal communication by the cast. C.T. Larsen as Daniel especially stands out, a character going quite mad from his own inner demons, at one point unknowingly re-enacting a legendary story with himself as Androcles and his mother Beth as the lion. Geoff White as Christopher rises to the demands of an unlikable character, the sort of man who believes that blunt impoliteness accompanied by abusive profanity can be mislabeled as “honesty” and thereby become a positive thing. Joseph Ausanio as Billy has an exceptionally difficult role, conveying the perspective of a deaf character to a hearing audience. As with any good play in the Chekhovian style, what is not said, and the significance of how it is not said, is generally more important than what is said, making deafness a particularly effective metaphor amongst a veritable sea of symbolism and allusion. Director T.J. Curran understands that and employs his cast accordingly.

Even Chekhov, in his last play The Cherry Orchard, was not above making a joke at his own expense: he has a character brandish a gun that never does get fired.

Tribes, Epic Theatre’s Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Sq, Cranston, RI. http://www.epictheatreri.org In association with the Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

Fri, Sat (1/17, 1/18, 1/24, 1/25) 8:00pm. About 2 hours including intermission. Includes mature content, including subject matter and language, not appropriate for anyone under 17.

Tickets: Artists Exchange, 401-490-9475 or at http://www.artists-exchange.org

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/224941627678555/

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