I’ve heard William Shakespeare performed in many different languages – French, German, Russian, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and even English. Until this week, however, I’d never seen his words performed.
Ultrasound begins with Alphonse (Chris Dodd), a deaf accountant, surprising his wife, Miranda (Elizabeth Morris), a hard-of-hearing actress, with a sonnet for her 29th birthday.
It’s Sonnet 29, and Alphonse delivers it, with gestural eloquence, in American Sign Language, as Shakespeare’s words are projected behind him: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes …” He adds a knowing look when the protagonist troubles “deaf heaven” with his “bootless cries,” and I somehow found his version more stirring than most recitations of the poem.
It wasn’t dance. It wasn’t mime. It was embodied poetry, felt and physicalized, and a delight to watch – even if you don’t understand ASL.
Early on in Ultrasound then, playwright Adam Pottle is laying the groundwork for the audience to agree with Alphonse when he later asserts, “Deaf isn’t a disability, it’s a culture.” But Alphonse, initially charmingly reserved, has become less than sympathetic at that point.
Ultrasound’s plot concerns what, at first, seems a rather banal conflict between partners. Miranda wants to have a baby before she turns 30, while Alphonse is in no rush. As it turns out, however, Alphonse only really wants to have a baby if it will grow up to be a part of his culture. As he explains, “Whenever a hearing person tries to talk to me, I feel weak.” He wants genetic testing done before he agrees to procreate.
That may already strain the inclusive sentiment of the hearing crowd. But it reaches the breaking point when, after a couple of white lies on Miranda’s part, she becomes pregnant with a baby that will likely not be deaf – and Alphonse asks her to have an abortion.
Miranda feels Alphonse has moved beyond deaf pride and transformed into a “deaf nationalist.” She may be losing her hearing and speech (a concern she seems to have largely channelled toward her womb), but she still identifies with the hearing world.
Theatre, particularly in the English-speaking world, has traditionally not been very welcoming to the deaf and the hard of hearing, prioritizing spoken language over visual communication.
Edward Albee once expressed the dominant theatrical ideology like this: “You can take a deaf person to a movie; you can’t take a blind person. You can take a blind person to a play; you can’t take a deaf person.”
In recent years, however, mainstream theatre has become more curious about deaf culture. English hearing playwright Nina Raine’s family drama Tribes, which tackles many of the same issues as Ultrasound, has been produced around the world. Meanwhile, Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening – complete with choreographed sign language – made it all the way to Broadway last fall.
Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille are bringing that inclusive spirit to Canada with Ultrasound, an intriguing dramatic attempt to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds that Pottle, a writer born with sensorineural hearing loss in both ears, has spent his life oscillating between.
Director Marjorie Chan’s production has projected surtitles throughout – sometimes helping hearing audience members follow the ASL dialogue, sometimes helping deaf spectators follow the spoken dialogue.
Pottle’s writing can be raw. In early scenes, in particular, Alphonse and Miranda lay out their disagreement in dialogue with little subtext. The central contrivance that the couple, well into their marriage, seem to have never seriously discussed the details of having kids before makes them seem ill-matched and immature and thus hard to invest in.
Perhaps because of the technical requirements, Chan’s production feels somewhat rudimental on a set by Trevor Schwellnus that is so bland it makes you wish for the bare stage.
But the play finds its groove as Pottle’s initial cheeriness gradually wades into crueler territory. The sweetness of the early scenes is suddenly recast as a misdirect for a dark drama that evokes the spectre of August Strindberg and will test your personal politics, whatever they may be.
That fact that Dodd and Morris have little chemistry only makes their relationship seem that much more tragic. In the end, you may not want them to stay together and you may not like either of them, but their desire to stay together despite their awful behaviour feels honestly heart-wrenching.
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