Billy Finn plays Claudius and Matthew R. Wilson portrays the title character in Faction of Fool's production of Hamlecchino.
Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark is a new version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and combines hearing performers from the John Aniello Award-winning theater company, Faction of Fools, with students from Gallaudet, the federally-chartered university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Last year, as the Fools kicked off their third season, they became artists-in-residence at Gallaudet. Hamlecchino is the second play they've staged at the university.
Faction of Fools specializes in Commedia dell'Arte: a 500-year-old tradition of physical comedy incorporating improvisation, masks and stock characters, from starry-eyed lovers and boasting heroes to greedy old men and wily servants, like Arlecchino.
"[He's] the wily underdog who is the butt of the jokes, but then in the end maybe gets vindicated," says Faction of Fools' artistic director, Matthew R. Wilson, who's also directing Hamlecchino and performing the title role. "So the experiment was what if we took Hamlet, this philosophical prince, and performed him in the style of the Commedia character, Arlecchino?"
Wilson says a partnership between a Commedia dell'Arte theater company and a university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students makes perfect sense.
"Commedia from the beginning was developed to tour from city to city all across Europe," he explains. "Which meant that it had to deal with language issues. So they developed a style where the physical storytelling can stand on its own and do a lot of the work."
And given the innate physicality of American Sign Language, he says, "it doesn't seem to me to be a leap at all to combine a Renaissance art form that's interested in multilingualism with American Sign Language."
Gallaudet senior Amelia Hensley agrees, but as she's rehearsed the role of Rosencrantz, she's also discovered surprising differences between ASL and the masked art of Commedia.
"It's interesting because [in] deaf culture, it's so important to have facial expression; it's part of the language," she explains. "We tend not to use our legs. But with Commedia, I have a mask, and your facial grammar is moot because of the mask. So now, it's so important that I use my whole body, and I got so sore because I've been using my body so much in my rehearsal!"
But Hensley says she appreciates the new skill. She also appreciates that in this production, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern aren't just being portrayed by deaf actors; they're being portrayed as deaf characters.
"So we're signing, but there's no voice translation," Hensley says. "And I thought, 'How's the audience going to understand?' And then you start to recognize that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are in their own little world, where only Hamlecchino can understand them. And then we have the King and Queen, our relationship with the King and Queen, we have no idea what's going on with them. They have no idea what's going on with us, which is something that's very common with hearing-deaf relationship."
Understanding a universal language
Gallaudet Theater Arts chair Ethan Sinnott says he hopes the new partnership will take that hearing-deaf relationship, and strengthen it. Not just at the theater, but in the theater industry.
"When it comes to deaf people in theater, it's been a slow process to have them become more involved in the field because of the cost of interpreters, the adjustments and accommodations that need to be made," he explains. "It's not to say that there's discrimination in the field, but it's difficult as a deaf person to figure out how to break into this industry."
Which is why Sinnott is thrilled that Gallaudet students will be able to learn from working, professional actors. Under the new agreement, Gallaudet provides Faction of Fools with rehearsal and performance space, and Faction of Fools casts one or two students in its productions. It's also been leading classes in Commedia, acrobatics and other skills.
"I want to give [students] the best resources and tools that they can have to be able to compete in this hearing field," Sinnott says. "I'm trying to create some sort of model within the university setting that can help students network, transition, improve their odds."
Of course, that model hasn't been without challenges. After all, Faction of Fools is a hearing company. Rachel Spicknall, who portrays Horatio, is among the few who know any sign at all; Wilson has learned a bit as well, but Spicknall says the dynamic has been fascinating to watch, especially at the Hamlecchino cast's first workshop.
"The best exercises were the ones where the teacher, the assistant director, didn't let any of us use any language, she recalls. "And it was all gesture."
Those scenes were fantastic, she says. But when the actors were instructed to repeat the scenes, this time talking aloud or using sign, "we stopped moving. And it was like, you stopped doing Commedia in that moment! You stopped communicating with the audience! All of a sudden you were caught up in your head and the language!"
So the lesson, she says, is simple: "You don't need 'language-language.' Because you can communicate with each other and the audience through this other, universal thing."
Dr. Lindsey Snyder, Faction of Fools' Director of Access, says that's precisely the point - which is why she helped orchestrate the partnership with Gallaudet.
"I mean, not to sound artsy-fartsy," she says, "but the common language is theater. And whether I use ASL, or whether I use English, or whether I just stand on my head to make my point, you're gonna come along with me for the ride because this is the game we play together."
Of course, Wilson says interpreters are present at rehearsals, "and that's really important, obviously, so that we have access and we can all have the conversation."
But a lot of the time, he goes on to say, especially as everyone gets more comfortable with one another, they do without interpretation "and just go, 'No no, I know what you mean.' So we're developing our own personal language, I guess."
Hamlecchino runs from April 26 through May 19 at Gallaudet's Elstad Auditorium.
[Music: "Something To Talk About" by Badly Drawn Boy from About a Boy Soundtrack (cut from instrumental intro to the "Something to talk about" chorus)]
Photos: Local Theater Brings Deaf Actors into Artistic Fold
When you give to WAMU, your tax-deductible membership gift helps make possible award-winning programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm Show, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, and other favorites.