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Burning River 

The blazing talents of deaf and hearing actors make Big River memorable.

Some sign, some sing -- and the result is unforgettable.
  • Some sign, some sing -- and the result is unforgettable.

If you had to live with only one of the five senses, which would you select? It's a difficult question, but it would be hard to argue that the ability to hear (and thus speak) is the single sense that continually connects us to each other and to our environment. Imagine navigating an ordinary day without being aware of an approaching siren, a child's cry, nearby footsteps. Or a note of music. That's why the idea of deaf and hard-of-hearing actors performing in a Broadway musical that's chockablock with audio cues is fairly mind-boggling.

But that is exactly what's happening at the Palace Theatre, where the Deaf West Theatre production of Big River, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is raising goose bumps of genuine theatrical inspiration and excitement. By pairing a number of hearing- and speech-impaired actors with unimpaired stage partners, this sensational show delivers all the words and tunes that Roger Miller (music and lyrics) and William Hauptman (book) created in their original 1985 production -- but with the additional fascination of seeing every utterance simultaneously signed in the gestures of American Sign Language. The result is an exhilarating experience that far surpasses the combination of Mark Twain's insightful story and Miller's engaging score.

To understand the challenge and reward this Big River affords, consider the task of portraying Huck Finn himself. Played by a loose-limbed and boyishly impulsive Tyrone Giordano, Huck has every character nuance in place, save for the ability to hear or speak. So Daniel Jenkins, who also plays narrator Mark Twain, handles Huck's lines and sings all his songs, standing off to one side of the stage. Giordano doesn't attempt to lip-synch to Jenkins' hay-chewin', country-boy delivery. But Huck is so thoroughly immersed in the flow of every scene that the schizoid presentation quickly becomes irrelevant.

This is the manner in which all the deaf actors' roles are presented, including VAE as a whippet-thin Miss Watson, multiple roles played by the flexible Ryan Schlecht, and a young slave girl played by Christina Dunams. These hearing-impaired actors are all outstanding, but perhaps the finest performance turned in by a deaf player, with the exception of that of Giordano himself, is by Troy Kotsur. Appearing first as scruffily hateful Pap Finn, Kotsur looks like 40 miles of hard road. But then, gazing into a mirror, Kotsur is joined by a speaking actor, Erick Devine, who looks nearly identical and plays the role of Pap beside him, while supplying Pap's lines and sharing the blocking.

This is just one example of director Jeff Calhoun's rich imagination -- taking the inherent limitations of this format and turning it into a startling new way to appreciate the script's treasures (Pap's drinking scene, when one guzzles from a bottle and the other wipes his mouth, is a delight).

Kotsur and Devine then reprise their flawless teamwork when they reappear as the Duke and King respectively, playing innocent Huck and various townspeople like a $2 banjo as they con their way down the Mississippi.

Many of the most thrilling musical moments are provided by slaves Jim and Alice through their gospel-laced, bluegrass-inspired songs. As Huck's black sidekick, Michael McElroy is absolutely riveting, using his ripped bod and equally well-developed pipes to draw all the emotion out of songs such as "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain," and "Worlds Apart." Gwen Stewart is equally enthralling as Alice when she nails "How Blest We Are" and the infectious "Waitin' for the Light to Shine."

All of this is staged in front of large reproductions of pages from the Huckleberry Finn novel, which are equipped with doorways, portals, and flip-up sections that shape various playing areas. This non-representational set design by Ray Klausen works beautifully to accommodate the large cast while keeping the production firmly linked to Twain's classic novel, which was (and still often is) a highly controversial work. A small but mighty seven-member band is ensconced in an upper corner of the stage, giving the performers who can hear them substantial support under the direction of Steven Landau.

It must be noted that a few audience members never returned after the intermission, evidently put off by the combination of signed and spoken language on display. And while it is true that the dialogue scenes involving deaf performers aren't quite as seamless and immediate as usual, the visual poetry of all these actors signing -- choreographing their words with their hands -- more than makes up for the slightly delayed pacing. Once those traditional expectations are set aside, this production can overwhelm you with its raw honesty and profound sensitivity.

At the curtain, the cast members applaud the band by wiggling their fingers at the musicians, the sign-language equivalent of clapping. We second the gesture: Finger wiggles all around.

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