The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

drum-5
Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

PRINCE HAMLET-Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio-photo Bronwen Sharp
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.