Thursday, March 14, 2013


Tribes by Nina Raine at The Mark Taper Forum

 (Click on Photo for full view)

The Mark Taper Forum is known for trying new things. That Los Angeles patrons support this gem in the middle of the Music Center is to everyone’s benefit.  Tribes is a cornucopia of contradictions.  The story turns on a totally dysfunctional British family, the Father Christopher (Jeff Still), the Mother Beth (Lee Roy Rogers), and three adult children (Will Brill as Daniel, Gayle Rankin as Ruth and Russell Harvard as Billy), each with his or her own issues.   The story is based on Billy, born deaf and raised in family confinement with nary a clue about sign language.  His dad thinks that catering to such nonsense will hinder the boy instead of helping him to keep up with the pack.

Scott Pask’s beautiful set is mostly centered in the cluttered family home.  The clatter of arguments, all shouting at once with no one really listening to anyone else continues through the play.  Billy sits at the family table, obviously excluded, even though if one asked either parent or his siblings if they loved him or deliberately excluded him they would proclaim deep love and deny ignoring his needs to be included.

Seque to a clever scene change where Billy meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a local girl who is slowly going deaf.  She has educated herself not only in sign language, but has become adept at reading lips.  Billy’s world changes dramatically. At once in deep love and on the verge of being able to communicate with the outside world and others in the deaf community, this heaps criticism and angst on his family. Christopher, is in denial, refusing to learn to sign. Eventually, the saddest of the lot, brother Daniel, who has mental issues of his own comes around as the rest of the family contemplates their shame.

For reasons that remain a mystery, this play about the issues of being deaf in a hearing world, director David Cromer has his actors delivering their lines directly up stage fully half or more of the time.  Fortunately, from time to time, projected supers  quickly translate signed speeches into English.  Over all the British accents and extra decibel screeching dominate.  

For a production to feature a talented deaf actor like Harvard, whose slightly impaired speech, combined with British accents was often very difficult to understand. To not have a way for hearing impaired subscribers and patrons to fully ‘get’ the gist of things undermines the purpose of this show.  This is not theatre of alienation, though the cast to a person one way or another (perhaps with the exceptions of Harvard and Pourfar) in their self centered rants made mish mash of the story.  Certainly, the actors are professionals and the energy of the entire show never flags.  That leaves the question of why Cromer opted for such broad arguments and shouting upstage when, lip readers and others may have been able to better understand the play by actually being able to see the actors.
Pask’s  set expands the seating capacity of the house by about forty or fifty seats off Stage Left.  The stage is placed on an angle that serves the show well, with many surfaces for superimposed projections by Jeff Sugg.

Extremely strong language flies throughout, but we become inured, realizing that this is just the way this family communicates. What parents wouldn’t be ready to scream with three adult children still living at home? 

TRIBES by Nina Raine
Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles Music Center
Continues through April 14, 2013
For tickets and information
213 628 2772

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