Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tribes—Artists Rep.—SW Portland


This intense play is written by Nina Raine and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez (Artist Rep.’s Artistic Director).  It is performing at their space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave. through March 1st.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.
Briefly, as defined in the dictionary, a Tribe is a group sharing common traits.  A family or clan can be considered a tribe.  A community, also, and a culture can be tribal.  Or a creed, or physical characteristics, or political ideology can fit into this rather broad category.  But, within all that, there is still another need—a personal identity…who am I, really…where do I belong…how do I want to be regarded.  Not easy questions to answer.

Billy (Stephen Drabicki) was born deaf but has an implant so he can speak.  He was not regarded as handicapped in any way because his autocratic father, Christopher (Michael Mendelson) and his novelist mother, Beth (Linda Alper) have chosen to treat him as part of their tribe, a speaking one.  His pot-head of a brother, Daniel (Joshua J. Weinstein), who also hears voices in his head, treats him as an equal.  His opera-singing sister, Ruth (Kayla Lian), also accepts him as part of their clan.

You’ve noticed the problem right away, of course, all of these descriptives of family members, opera…pot-head…writer…mental problems…deafness, also are sub-tribes, if you will, of the chief tribe, family.  So the dilemma still remains…where do I belong?   Although this family of intellects, albeit dysfunctional, do manage to reach some sort of a rocky compromise of existence, although by no means happy.  In short, they tolerate each other and that’s about it.

Everything might have stayed the same expect that Billy meets a girl, Sylvia (Amy Newman) who hears, but was born of deaf parents, so she signs.  Billy has never learned sign but he does lip read and hears, because of the implant, to some extent.  They both have one foot in both worlds.  It soon becomes apparent that Billy must decide which world he embraces.  And his family is going to face a similar dilemma, if they are to hold on to their “tribal” member.  To reveal more would be giving away discoveries an audience must experience.

Some absolutely essential questions are asked in this play and no easy answers forthcoming.  What it should spurn is some dialogue, in whatever form, for the viewers.  There have been plays/films about deafness, the ones that immediately come to my mind are the rock opera, Tommy, and the play/movie, Children of a Lesser God.  Again, no easy answers, just interesting perspectives.  It is said that Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress and Academy Award winner for the film, eventually got implants and began speaking in films.  Much of the deaf community shunned her after that.

My own personal experience happened as I was asked to voice actors in the NW Theatre of the Deaf’s, The Fantasticks.  Not knowing sign, I got a crash course in it, as I was to voice three parts in the show.  I made messy attempts to try and communicate in sign language with them, even going so far as writing a poem and then signing it to a girl in the production that I was a bit smitten with.  The one thing this experience taught me is that if you at least attempt, however clumsily, to communicate to others in their language, they appreciate it and will do their best to help you out.  A word to the wise, perhaps.

The cast is dynamic in presenting this play.  Mendelson, as the father of the tribe, could have easily been a one-dimensional character but, in his capable hands, you see all the colors of the rainbow.  Alper, too, as the mother, is a pro and although you see and understand her anger, you also see her vulnerable side.  Both true artists.  Weinstein, as one son and Lian, as the daughter, both are complex roles, having their moments of lucidity and frustration, and well played by these fine, young actors.

Newman, as the girlfriend, is a true joy to watch.  The journey she takes in her difficult path in life is admirable.  She does a fine job of allowing you to experience it with her.  And Drabicki, as the other son, gives a heart-breaking performance in a difficult role, wanting to be understood but not feeling he belongs, looking, as we all are, for his place in the world.  Well done.

Rodriguez has steered this emotional roller coaster from its intense peaks to its quieter valleys with a deft hand.  He obviously understands actors and speaks their language.  And he, and scenic designer, Tal Sanders, have created an intriguing visual world to help convey the feelings of the conventional world.  The music and colors created at the end of Act I brought a tear to my eye.

On final personal note, I consider myself in the Artist’s world, especially the performing arts.  When I get in discussions with other actors, directors, writers, the rest of the world takes a back seat to the passion I feel in those exchanges.  But I also must realize that others, having different interests and tribes they belong to, might get lost in these moments.  I have learned to be an active listener to others and must appreciate that it takes all kinds to build a world.

I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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