A drama about deaf culture at Theatre Passe Muraille and a cyber satire at Tarragon Theatre revolve around reproductive technology.
A few years ago, U.K. playwright Nina Raine had a big success with Tribes, a play that dramatized the divide between the deaf and hearing cultures. (It received its Toronto premiere in 2014 from Theatrefront at Canadian Stage.) Now Canadian poet and novelist Adam Pottle gives us his own perspective on that same divide with his debut play, Ultrasound, premiering in a co-production by Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille. Unlike Raine, Pottle is deaf himself and and provides a personal view.
The two-character drama opens with Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet—in sign language. Alphonse (Chris Dodd), who is deaf, has learned to sign the love poem, arcane words and all, as a gift to his actress wife Miranda (Elizabeth Morris) on her 29th birthday. It’s a token of his love for her and, despite some difference, the two appear to be a happy couple. Miranda’s own hearing is poor and fading, but she still maintains a firm foothold in the world of sound; she auditions for speaking roles, listens to her favourite metal bands, and keeps an audio diary.
Alphonse, on the other hand, refuses to speak, is far more fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) than his spouse, and has come under the sway of a deaf work colleague—an activist with an “us-and-them” attitude to the hearing world. Alphonse has also been avoiding Miranda’s increasing desire to have a baby, out of a fear that the child will be able to hear. He thinks that would be analogous to having “a white child born to black parents,” and he talks about preserving the deaf “bloodline.”
The couple reach a compromise, with Miranda agreeing to genetic testing after the baby is conceived. When the test shows that the child won’t be deaf, the question of abortion arises.
The idea of aborting a child because it doesn’t have what is commonly perceived to be a disability is the most shocking aspect of Pottle’s play. This reversal of what we’ve come to accept—terminating pregnancies when a baby will be born disabled—forces us to consider whether that ugly old concept, eugenics, is being practised via today’s reproductive technology. But it also highlights the kind of extremism that marginalized communities are capable of and makes us question whether the dominant majority has driven them to that point. It turns out Alphonse’s embrace of that extremism is a result of a childhood in which he was physically abused by an alcoholic uncle because of his deafness.
That ought to make us feel sorry for Alphonse, and we do—but only to a degree. The character becomes so detestable in the latter part of the play, as he refuses to share his responsibility in the outcome of the pregnancy and berates the unhappy Miranda, that we don’t much care about his own suffering. Pottle may have wanted to make Alphonse a complex personality, but instead he’s only made him a jerk.
It’s the vivacious Miranda, played with humour and charm by Morris, that we root for all the way through. Her twin passions for Shakespeare and Motörhead (this may be the first play that references both Othello and Lemmy Kilmister), her hunger for motherhood, and the agonizing decision she must make on her own all combine to give us an endearing and sympathetic portrait of a young woman caught between two worlds.
If Morris is the winning half of the onstage duo, it’s Dodd who gives the virtuoso physical performance, playing his role entirely in a highly expressive ASL—and Pottle has slyly given him the play’s only monologues. Those of us who don’t know ASL can follow along via designer Trevor Schwellnus’s projected surtitles, but as with any performance in a foreign language, you suspect you may be missing some nuances.
Cahoots artistic director Marjorie Chan’s production caters to both deaf and hearing audiences, with surtitles for Morris’s speech as well as Dodd’s signing (Morris, as Miranda, also uses ASL, but in a more limited way). There’s a sound design by Richard Lee, but Schwellnus’s lighting is just as effective in evoking, say, a loud, sweaty metal concert. It brings to mind an expression from another of Shakespeare’s sonnets (the 23rd): “To hear with eyes.”
There’s a subplot in Ultrasound that has Miranda auditioning for, and winning the part of—what else?—Miranda in The Tempest. The forward-thinking director believes her hearing-affected speech isn’t a disability, but an asset to playing the role of a girl raised outside civilization. This may be Pottle’s message to real theatre directors out there: now that audiences are comfortable with colour- and gender-blind casting, why not ability-blind casting, too? And, as Morris and Dodd prove, lack of hearing is no barrier to acting talent.
Where Ultrasound deals in the brave new world of genetic testing, actor-playwright Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned—in which he plays a character named, appropriately, Aldous—imagines an even braver new world in which the transmigration of souls can be achieved through technology. Filippo’s intriguing new play, closing out Tarragon Theatre‘s season, is both a glib tech satire and a mystery with a sci-fi twist.
Kahn, a Steve Jobs-style tech visionary, has died, leaving behind a billion-dollar empire founded on computer security and a tangled personal life. Five people from that life have been summoned on his instructions to a low-budget airport hotel near Pearson for the reading of his will. They include Annie (Maggie Huculak), his estranged ex-wife and ex-collaborator, who now runs the hotel; her son Aldous (Filippo); Kahn’s corporate partner Gary (John Bourgeois); lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), also an ex-lover; and a young flight attendant named Isla (Rachel Cairns) whose courteous treatment of Kahn apparently left a lasting impression.
Supervising the secretive proceedings is a shady security chief, Quentin (Tony Nappo), who seems to be narcoleptic and, when not nodding off, occasionally sprays the room with a mysterious aerosol that would appear to have roughly the same effect as sodium pentothal. As the summoned lose their inhibitions in one way or another, the truth about their relationships with Kahn begins to emerge.
The play is partly narrated—or rather, presented—by Aldous in the style of a product unveiling, with accompanying flashy video graphics (designed by Kurt Firla) and a flurry of tech-speak. And it turns out that the late Kahn had one last product up his sleeve: a means of literally achieving immortality. But before the big reveal, he’s determined to mess with everyone’s heads. The combination of the spray and all the cryptic rigmarole causes Bourgeois’ irascible Gary to have an emotional breakdown. Fox’s smug Laura, meanwhile, succumbs to a fit of nonstop laughter. But the real mind-blowing is reserved for Filippo’s Aldous, who discovers not only the identity of his father, but the true purpose of his existence, during the course of a virtual, beyond-the-grave conversation with Kahn.
The characters are cartoonish, which is fine for satire. There’s some amusing byplay between the blustering Gary and Cairns’s cool Isla, who enjoys goading him by assuming the stereotype of a clueless millennial. Nappo, meanwhile, has a great time in a tailor-made role as the officious slob Quentin, who comes armed with vintage equipment—a walkie-talkie and a flip phone—and a secret identity of his own.
In Aldous, Filippo has given himself the least-interesting role—not only is he forgettable, but he forgot some of his lines on opening night. Even putting that aside, the play has dead spots. The characters’ bickering and the lack of elucidation start to grow tiresome, while Richard Rose’s slick staging begins to look like slack staging. You know things are slow when Cairns’s Isla has to do the splits to keep us entertained.
The climax, however, is a clever pay-off—even if it leaves you with a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Kahn’s motives may be altruistic, but he also wants to play God. He’s just a capitalist variation on the tyrannical technocrats of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And his emotional dysfunction extends into the afterlife. His final grand gesture, meant to prove his enduring love for Huculak’s dying Annie, comes in the form of a gift of new life forced upon her without ever considering she might want a say in it. Yes, he may be a tech god, but he’s also the typical guy who thinks a big present will make up for his poor communication skills.