by Lynn on February 15, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

From the original by William Shakespeare

ASL & visual translation by Dawn Jani Birley

Set and costumes designed by Lorenzo Savoini

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Lighting by André du Toit

Cast: Dawn Jani Birley

Miriam Fernandes

Barbara Gordon

Jeff Ho

Christine Horne

Hannah Miller

Rick Roberts

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

Karen Robinson

A bilingual (English and ASL) integrated production of a classic that engages us to ‘hear’ the play in a new way.

The Story. Even sheep-herders in remote area of the world know this story, right? Prince Hamlet comes home from school for his father’s funeral to find his mother has married his father’s brother, Claudius.  Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet plots and plans to get even and on the way lots of bodies pile up. It ends badly for just about everybody.

The Production and Comment. Director Ravi Jain wants to challenge our pre-conceptions and expectations with this Shakespeare classic. And so Prince Hamlet is played by Christine Horne. Jain has placed Horatio, Hamlet’s close friend, as the central character of the adaptation and cast Dawn Jani Birley in the part. Ms Birley is hearing impaired and plays the character and communicates Horatio’s lines by signing her part and others in American Sign Language, usually at centre-stage. Horatio observes everything. So when Prince Hamlet is speaking to another character, Birley is upstage a bit, signing what the characters are saying as they speak it. Often when Birley has a scene with Christine Horne as Prince Hamlet, Horne is signing to Birley as well as speaking her lines.

There are several other gender swappings besides Christine Horne playing Hamlet and Dawn Jani Birley playing Horatio. Miriam Fernandes plays Rosencrantz, the Player King and the Gravedigger—usually played by men. Barbara Gordon plays Polonius, Cordelia and Laertes’ Father, usually played by a man.  Jeff Ho plays Ophelia, of course usually played by a woman.  Hannah Miller plays Guildenstern and Osric, usually played by men, and The Player Queen. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah plays Laertes.  And Rick Roberts plays Claudius and Karen Robinson plays Gertrude, so these last two castings are not gender-swapped.

One might ask, “What is the point of all this gender swapping and communicating by sign language? How does this inform the play?”

For the English and ASL aspect, Ravi Jain says: “Our production is bilingual, both English and ASL are fully integrated, which is rare, and provides unique access to Shakespeare’s text for both Deaf and hearing audiences….By changing the perspective of the storytellers, we break expectations, discover new aspects of the story and contemporize it—without changing the language.”

So using Ravi Jain’s thinking it’s to hear/consider the story in a new light.

There were many hearing impaired people in the audience for the performance I saw and it was fascinating watching them watching the show and how animated and excited they were at intermission as they signed to their friends.

Does it work as a production? First of all, the production looks exquisite, thanks to Lorenzo Savoini’s design and André du Toit’s shimmering lighting. Three mirrors are upstage on the back wall and reflect various scenes that are performed in front of it. A tasteful chandelier. A rich wood square is the playing area. There are mounds of black earth around the space. When not in a scene, an actor sits in chairs flush against the walls of the space.

 Christine Horne as Prince Hamlet certainly has an intensity and melancholy about her that I think is effective. She’s waif thin, wears black and looks like a character worn down by grief, not eating or sleeping.  And I think she handles the text well.

Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio is very present and full of conviction as she signs at an energetic pace. She’s in riding breeches it seems with high boots and sturdy clothes.

One willingly suspends ones disbelief to embrace the idea of a woman playing Horatio who communicates through sign language at that.

Rick Roberts is a wily, politically savvy Claudius. Karen Robinson plays a lusty Gertrude. Together they are so tactile and sexually charged you get the sense that they were having an affair way before the play starts which is always intriguing.

But the performance that really caught my attention when it was first done last year and now is Jeff Ho as Ophelia.  Jeff Ho is a slim man and gives Ophelia that demur but frightened deer in headlights look. And Ho beautifully captures the sense of loss that Ophelia is experiencing—her brother, her protector, has left her to go to Paris; her father Polonius has little use for her except as a person on whom to spy, and Hamlet tells her to shut herself away in  nunnery. You get every sense of Ophelia’s anguish because of the way Jeff Ho plays her.

Is it a great production of Prince Hamlet? No, but that’s not its intention. It’s to hear the story in a different light because of the languages in which it’s been spoken and the person speaking. In that light Ravi Jain and company have made their point.

 A Why Not Theatre Production presented by Canadian Stage

Began: Feb. 6, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 24, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.


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