(Editor's note: Following the end of R+J: The Vineyard's run at Oracle Theatre, Red Theater Chicago remounts the show at the Den Theatre January 22–February 20, with some casting changes. Below is our original review of the production at Oracle.)
Right now on Broadway, Deaf West Theatre’s revival of Spring Awakening is drawing raves for its rethinking of the musical for a cast that’s part deaf, part hearing, with some roles doubled between singing and signing actors. A similar ASL experiment is taking place here in Lakeview, on a storefront-budget scale but with no less ambition—and notably, with fewer concessions to the hearing audience members.
Conceived by Red Theater Chicago artistic director Aaron Sawyer and co-produced with Oracle, R+J: The Vineyard imagines the Capulets and Montagues as residents of late 19th-century Martha’s Vineyard. Over the previous century, the island had nurtured a thriving and self-sustaining—and thus normalized—population of deaf people alongside the hearing; now, as the tourism industry began to take over Martha’s Vineyard, the Deaf population was dispersed, and the proprietary sign language that had been spoken on the island by deaf and hearing alike lost to history.
Sawyer and co-adapter Janette Bauer use this historical setting to reimagine the war between the families of Romeo (Brendan Connelly) and Juliet (McKenna Liesman) as not owing to any particular beef, but rather to cultural misapprehension. Both of the young lovers are characterized as deaf and signers, though Juliet belongs to a hearing family, and relies largely on her hearing, translating nurse (Beth Harris) to bridge the communication gap with her mother, Lady Capulet (Lona Livingston, in a meld of both parental roles). Romeo, on the other hand, has grown up in a signing culture; even his hearing cousin Benvolio (here gender-swapped and played by Brenda Scott Wlazlo) speaks and signs by habit, serving as translator for all sides.
Romeo & Juliet can sometimes feel like a much-loved book, its spine cracked and pages dog-eared in a way that ensures you hear the same notes on every re-read. This new treatment, by literally making hearing or not hearing a part of the equation, can illuminate previously unseen nooks and crannies. Scenes that are exclusively between hearing, speaking characters have dialogue projected onto the rear of the stage, underlining the subtle changes in the language that are presumably mirrored in the entirely-signed balcony and bedroom scenes.
Since the grammars of American Sign Language and English aren’t a one-to-one match, the dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is likely also an approximation. Hearing audience members don’t get a direct translation, but we get the meaning regardless in the charming and palpable chemistry between the enchanting Connelly (who bears a strong resemblance to Zachary Quinto, but with a more puppyish quality) and Liesman (who makes for a strong-willed but stymied Juliet).
Even with its reduced cast size, Sawyer’s staging can feel a little cramped on John Wilson’s set, and a couple of the actors playing hearing characters seem to overcompensate for the quiet moments by going extra-declamatory in their own speeches. But overall, this affecting new interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most-heard works is worth a look and a listen.
Red Theater Chicago and Oracle Productions. By William Shakespeare. Adapted by Janette Bauer and Aaron Sawyer. Directed by Sawyer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.