by Julio Martinez
Fountain Theatre’s Stephen Sachs (co-artistic director) and Simon Levy (producing director) are zeroing in on the premiere Saturday of the Fountain’s latest collaboration with Deaf West Theatre — a re-imagined, signed/spoken word adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, scripted by Sachs, helmed by Levy.
The Fountain has a long history with Deaf West, so Sachs and Levy are not exploring totally new territory. But they are quick to make clear that this production is not just a straightforward ASL translation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 rhymed-verse chronicle of the 17th century duelist and poet with an oversized proboscis.
“First of all, Stephen has set this in modern times in LA, where people communicate through all sorts of electronic gadgets, on Facebook and Twitter,” explains Levy. “This production uses spoken word, ASL and e-language. This provides for myriad possibilities but also a whole lot of complications.”
“In the original, Cyrano’s barrier is his enormous nose and his perceived ugliness,” Sachs elaborates. “In this new version, it’s Cyrano’s deafness. He is a brilliant deaf poet, who signs magnificently. But he is not fully able to express his love for a hearing woman because she does not know sign language. So, while Rostand’s Cyrano was a man of his nose, this is a man of his hands.
“This is also the journey of a man who is at once proud of his deafness and of his hands, which is how he speaks; but he is also at war with himself, as any great tragic hero is, in terms of his pride. In this case, one of the major parts of his journey is to find a kind of peace with that, within and outside his deaf community. Like the original Cyrano, who stands alone, distant from his comrades in arms, our Cyrano stands alone within his deaf community and that gets him into trouble.”
“He also is at odds along the way with insensitive hearing people,” adds Levy.
“But at the end, he is able to make peace and find forgiveness within himself, his community and the outer world,” continues Sachs.
The histories of Fountain Theatre and Deaf West have been entwined for 21 years, when Sachs and co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor provided office space to Ed Waterstreet, an actor with National Theatre of the Deaf, who envisioned founding a theater company for deaf actors in LA, which became Deaf West. The Fountain was the site of Deaf West’s first productions The Gin Game (1991), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1991) and Shirley Valentine (1992).
In 1993, Deaf West moved to the first of its own facilities, on Heliotrope Drive (in what is now Sacred Fools Theater). But Sachs, who already had a history of conducting workshops with deaf actors for a number of years, continued his commitment by writing Sweet Nothing in My Ear (1997) for a Fountain production and Open Window (2005) for a Deaf West/Pasadena Playhouse collaboration at the playhouse. Both of these incorporated deaf culture and illuminated the deaf world.
Cyrano is a project that has been percolating in the years since Deaf West settled in its later NoHo home (which recently has been used primarily by Antaeus Company and is currently rented for the production of The Bridge Club).
Sachs recalls, “About nine years ago, Deaf West had the idea of doing a musical version of Cyrano. It was just after they had a huge success adapting the musical, Big River (2001-02). I remember reading about it at the time and thought it was a great idea.
“Then, just a couple of years ago, Ed called me, wanting me to write a new play for Deaf West. We kicked around some ideas and then I asked about his plans for Cyrano. Ed said it was an idea that never came to fruition. Well, I told him I would love to do that, but I wanted to turn it into a play and have it be about Cyrano’s hands, not his nose, making it about his deafness and language. And that’s how this project came about.”
Levy adds, “Part of the journey in mounting this production has been the marriage of these three languages. This is a new world we live in with e-language and how important that language is to both the hearing and the deaf communities. That has created some interesting dilemmas in the staging. There are a lot of things we haven’t anticipated that we discovered in process of doing it. For instance, how do you relate text messages among the characters to an audience? We had a lot of wonderful ideas that we had to figure out how to actualize, none of which we could anticipate until we got into them.”
At the center of the action is actor Troy Kotsur, whose performance history with Deaf West includes Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men. “Troy is a wonderfully gifted and inventive actor who is a joy to watch as he has been creating this role,” affirms Levy. “So much of the creation of the ASL translation is intense, hard work. Part of it is done in advance with script work and an ASL translator. But a majority of it is done in rehearsal with the actor improvising different ways to sign a certain line or phrase. When you have someone as skilled as Troy doing it, it is an amazing experience to watch. And a wonderful actor, Victor Warren, provides Cyrano’s voice when needed.”
Complementing Kotsur in principal roles are Erinn Anova as the much-adored Roxy and Paul Raci as Chris, the handsome signing/speaking brother of Cyrano, with whom Roxy is smitten. Levy admits to being very aware that communicating with this cast has been a whole new learning curve for him.
“This is my first time staging a spoken word/ASL signed production. I’ve produced several speaking/ASL shows here at the Fountain, but this is a new experience. I could not do this at all without the immense contribution of the ASL interpreters [Elizabeth Greene and Jennifer Snipstad Vega]. A director has to be able to communicate with his actors and make sure everything is communicated correctly to the audience. I just can’t get up there and start talking about ‘feeling it’ and the actors’ ‘motivation.’ This has been a whole new adventure in using all the elements of communication possible to make sure everyone and everything involved in this is moving in the same direction.”
Sachs just smiles benignly at his cohort. “You’re doing just fine.”