Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tribes at Ensemble Theatre Company

The best cast in over a decade performs an emotionally spellbinding play

     Nina Raine’s Tribes examines what happens when a deaf son who has been raised in a hearing family, no matter how loving and supposedly accepting it has been, pushes for his independence. It works on many levels, but there won’t be many dry eyes in the audience at its end.  We went to a
preview and it richly deserved a standing ovation, but we were still dealing with its waves of emotion.  There’s only been one other show in the past twenty years that I felt the same way about and it was also great.

Dexter with Amy Warner
and Barry Mulholland*
     The six-member ensemble cast is maybe the best I’ve seen at Ensemble over the past dozen years.  Barry Mulholland and Amy Warner play the parents and their scrupulous accents refer to his upbringing in the north of England that he’s trying to cover with a Home Counties accent and her upbringing by a middle-class London family.  He engages intellectually, while she does so emotionally and it’s left their children more adrift than they initially appear. 

Dale Dymkoski and Kelly Mengelkoch*
     Dale Dymkoski debuts as Billy, who’s deaf, and he’s both eloquent in his initial alienation and devastating when he finally expresses himself through sign language, which his family discouraged him from learning.  Cincinnati Shakespeare Company member Kelly Mengelkoch plays the linchpin role of the woman with whom Billy becomes involved.  She’s wrenching because she realizes she’s losing her hearing and knows what it means.  Jen Joplin and
Jen Joplin*
Ryan Wesley Gilreath are the hearing children, both adult and college educated yet unable to fly from the roost for various reasons (dependent oncoming spinsterhood and schizophrenia).  Joplin and Gilreath are Ensemble veterans, who are revelatory here and look about ten years younger than in the earlier shows in which they appeared this season. 
Ryan Wesley Gilreath with Dale Dymkoski*
     Michael Evan Haney directs with extraordinary detail, resulting in multi-layered performances from the cast as well as exemplary work by Brian c. Mehring.  I don’t think Steppenwolf’s Kevin Rigdon could have topped this set or lighting.  The architectural layout immediately said it was a semi-detached house in a London suburb.  There’s even a Fairy (Britain’s Dawn) liquid bottle by the sink, and Marks and Spencer bag, thanks to props master Shannon Rae Lutz.  The super-titles are elegant and complemented powerfully by Fitz Patton’s sound effects, which place the hearing viewer in the seat of the deaf.  There was one incorrect blocking move, but I’m sure it was caught.

    What Raine nails is whether dominant, mainstream society really will back up its promise of inclusiveness to diverse groups.  In terms of its plot structure, Tribes dramatizes Weber’s model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis in terms of uneasy integration to segregation to a hopeful reconciliation between those that control and those that are controlled.  Communication and its revelation of identity is the underlying theme.  It’s no coincidence that the paterfamilias refers to semiotics because the relationship between a sign and its signifier describes the continuing conflict between those that hear and those that are deaf, or between members of any group whose identity is defined by members of a larger, outwardly more powerful group.

     It’s an intellectually complex play, more because of what the characters do and how they relate to each other than by what they say.  Actually, I wanted this bohemian literati lot to shut up after about ten minutes.  Billy, the deaf son, is the calm in the middle of an emotional storm, though his family does not directly deal with him.  They think they do, but we can see the truth, especially if we don’t listen to them.  And that’s an easy thing to do because there are two American Sign Language interpreters and that adds another level of communication and physical beauty to the production.  Fourteen performances will be signed and I’d advise seeing one because it is a window into another world of language, which is part of the point.

Tribes runs through February 16, 2014.
*All photos are from Ensemble Theatre website


Luke said...

I'm curious...what was the other
play at ETC which moved you this way?

Dexter said...

The play was a Roadworks production in 1996 at the Victory Garden Theatre in Chicago of "Ecstasy" by Mike Leigh. Unfortunately, that group is no longer around.