Who Tells Your Story?

who-tells-the-story

By Mariah Schultz, Associate Editor
Graphic by Danielle Szabo

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Olivia Cygan and Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift Theatre’s Richard III. Source: Chicago Critic

Shakespeare was known as being a man ahead of his times.

His mastery of the quill was so quick, and over the course of many plays, made him famous even during his own time, and he has left behind such a legacy today. If his strong skills were to be listed on a resume, they would include his use of eloquent language, his commentary on politics and gender, and intrigue of the anonymity behind his life. Amongst all of these familiarities, Shakespeare’s use of strong and effective rhetoric is probably his most notable attribute.

But what if those words were taken away? And that removal somehow made Shakespeare’s words even more resonant? Would we still be able to capture Shakespeare’s true intentions? The answer may seem like a no-brainer, but I’m here to tell you would be wrong.

Bet Shakespeare couldn’t have anticipated that one coming.

This past year, I had the pleasure of watching The Red Theatre’s R + J: The Vineyard and The Gift Theatre’s Richard III. They were both some of the best productions I have seen in Chicago, period, even of all time. Both productions utilized actors who were Deaf or disabled in primary roles that were crucial to the storytelling. Michael Patrick Thornton, a man who uses a wheelchair, as well as modern day technology to walk, played the title character in Richard III. For Romeo and Juliet, Romeo (Brendan Connelly) and Mercutio (Chris Schroeder) were played by Deaf actors. There was also Mckenna Liesman who played the character of Juliet as if she were Deaf though she is in fact full hearing in real life.

In doing so, it gave weight to lines that traditionally wouldn’t be thought of as so resonant.The Red Theatre even used one of the big lines in the play of Romeo and Juliet “Let hands do what lips do” as the tagline for their advertising campaign. Putting this line in the hands of actors who are Deaf gave it a deeper meaning that wouldn’t have the same reaction if spoken by two able-bodied fully-speaking and -hearing actors.

Both productions kept Shakespeare’s original text as is. They only amplified the stakes of the play even more so with their casting. With Richard III, the stakes could have not felt higher. When a character famously known for his disability is performed by an actual man who is disabled, the impact becomes far greater. There were no exaggerated humps or limps giving nod to Shakespeare’s idea that Richard’s physical deformity is meant to serve as a metaphorical manifestation of his wickedness. The impact became more about a man who was an outcast from society, not fitting into the typical norm.

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Cast of The Gift Theatre’s Richard III. Source: Chicago Theater Beat

The opportunities for dialogue to take on a deeper meaning opened the floodgates of possibility for these productions. They managed to not only strengthen the language in these works but also helped further shape these characters and their relationships. They were taken to depths that would not achieve the same effect if performed by fully able-bodied actors.

In R + J: The Vineyard, the intimacy of Juliet and the Nurse was even more apparent as the Nurse used sign language to communicate with Juliet. Through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), the Nurse was  able to interpret what Lady Capulet was saying to her daughter. The Nurse served not only as Juliet’s surrogate mother but also as her interpreter between her and her mother.

With the addition of Benvolio being played by a woman, Benvolio and Mercutio were made a couple. Benvolio not only served as a romantic partner for Mercutio but also was able to communicate with him through ASL (American sign language) as well. She served as the interpreter for Mercutio as well as Romeo mirroring the Nurse and Juliet’s relationship.

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Brendan Connelly, Chris Schroder, and Brenda Scott Wlazlo in The Red Theatre’s R + J: The Vineyard. Source: Chicago Reader 

And let’s not forget the star-crossed lovers.

The forbidden love between any two teenagers can seem intense, over dramatic, but especially with the portrayal of these two. The chemistry of the actors is crucial. The stakes also need to be felt. In this case with the disputing parents, their input seemed more about their own personal interests rather than the protection of their children. This dynamic is set up in the original play but parents fighting to fulfil the desire of themselves over their children felt more earned, more realistic. Romeo’s family made the effort to learn ASL to communicate with their son, whereas Juliet’s family was still trying to force her to use her words to say what she felt. By being even more so under their parents’ wings, I wanted to see these two go out on their own and find the independence that they were so desperately trying to cultivate.

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Brendan Connelly and McKenna Liesman in The Red Theatre’s R + J: The Vineyard. Source: Chicago Critic

As I reflected on these performances, I started to wonder to myself why we don’t see more productions like these, or why it feels like we aren’t more aware of them. Is it just because when we think of Shakespeare these people don’t come to mind? Or the material seems too far-fetching or advanced to even try to attempt such a task?

Critics and audiences would beg to disagree. The visions of both were met with successful reviews gaining momentous praise on the unique approaches to these classics. What’s also reassuring is the initiative to be more inclusive, by granting these opportunities to actors with disabilities.

In a conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted by Chris Jones a couple weeks ago, an audience member submitted the question “Would you consider casting a disabled person for Hamilton?to which Miranda responded in one word: “Absolutely.” And they moved on to the next question, nothing more needing to be discussed.

Miranda also featured the other week a special digital #Ham4Ham video, a video that is created for certain Hamilton lotteries before announcing the winner of tickets to the show. This one, titled “Talk Less, Sign More,” was shown with both actors singing and signing the lyrics to “Cabinet Battle #2.”

Probably the greatest commercial and popular example thus far has been the Deaf West Company’s production of Spring Awakening. Critics and audience members felt it was even better and in ways more resonant than the original Broadway production.

In the efforts theatre makes to be more inclusive of encompassing everyone’s stories, this is certainly a step in the right direction. And even more so, these actors are proving that they can not only perform, but do better — to bring depth to stories that others cannot and to make points that we would never have realized or grasped the first time around. Especially with Shakespeare, what could be more powerful than having people, who during his time were viewed as worthless, lead and continue such great work?

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Cast of Deaf West’s 2015 production of Spring Awakening. Source: Broadway World

I have been impacted in ways I didn’t think possible. I used to despise Romeo and Juliet, but the Red Theatre managed to make it capture my heart. The Gift’s Richard III gave me the boost of inspiration I needed to get excited about this great play that I get to work on here at The Theatre School at DePaul. Coincidentally, both of these productions are being done at The Theatre School this year.

While I look forward to these productions, I know in the back of my mind that some moments from these plays can never be topped. Like the famous balcony scene being entirely performed in sign language with no hackneyed spoken dialogue to cliche the couple — just sweet, untainted love, wonderful and worth the wait. There was a simplicity in the beauty of being able to peek in on their first interaction, like the joy one experiences in reading a book you know you will love for the first time. Despite their fame, it was as if you had never known who the real Romeo and Juliet were.

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McKenna Liesman and Brendan Connelly in The Red Theatre’s R + J: The Vineyard. Source: Spork!

I am also reminded of a man unable to love anyone including himself. I see the man who is able to make his way into every room unsuspectingly, but calculating every move he is going to make. I see him control people and time, calling out pauses, allowing him to create change or bring the plot to a halt. I see him use people as pawns in his game and  knock out everyone he no longer wants to be playing. One by one they go, building up to the moment where he calls for everything to “Stop”; he no longer has control. His subconscious wins as the ghosts of all those he killed appears. They paralyze the man before he meets his demise on the battlefield.

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Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift Theatre’s Richard III. Source: Stage and Cinema

Love is lost and hate seems to be triumphant until peace is granted after so much strife.

That feeling I experienced in both these moments can summarize everything I felt in seeing these productions tell Shakespeare’s stories: Wonderful, and worth the wait.

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