A Show That Speaks Volumes, But Only Three Words Aloud
"It really bothers me that people can sit on all those faces and not feel a thing."
Deaf Blender Theatre
That Chair Was My Wife
I put this on my Top 20 list because I knew that, even apart from the script, the production itself would be intriguing to watch. I wasn't wrong.
Though I've seen deaf actors perform in the past, it's always been as part of ensembles of hearing actors, specifically designed for largely hearing audiences - just to get a taste of the deaf world. Here, though the show is accessible to all, it's a solo performance by a deaf actor, Andrew J. Oehrlein, signing. He speaks only three words aloud for hearing ears, and those only at the end - for effect. It works.
Solo performance is perhaps an incorrect way to describe the proceedings. The person voicing Oehrlein's performance for the hearing part of the crowd, Michael La Rocca, is also acting. His isn't an emotionless interpretation like a translator for a public speech. The emotion on stage is reflected in the words we hear in the dark. La Rocca is also acting as the focus point for Oehrlein, whose character is visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist. When there is a pause, the unseen doctor is often asking a question to prompt Oehrlein's character to reveal more about his history. In an interesting twist, La Rocca appears to be signing those questions to Oehrlein, but we hearing patrons don't get those interpreted for us. Since La Rocca's back is to much of the audience, it's doubtful that deaf patrons get to see these questions either. The responses of Oehrlein's character make it clear the sorts of things he's being asked, so nothing is lost. It was just interesting to catch that extra layer out of the corner of my eye.
The story concerns a man who has emotional and sexual relations with pieces of furniture, mostly chairs, though his first love was, fittingly, a loveseat. It's a great credit to Oehrlein (and La Rocca) as well as the script that this unusual fixation of the character makes sense. It's not what we'd consider "normal" but it makes sense. Traumatic events, where people let him down, effectively abandoning him and uprooting him from his childhood home, leave him clinging to a familiar inanimate object for comfort. The relationship with Betty the loveseat evolves over time, as first loves do. It's a simple step from the first relationship with a chair to the next. Only other traumatic events, with his chair centered world falling apart, prompt him to seek treatment.
There's great humor to be had, of course. The audience can't help laughing at the peculiarities of this man's obsession. On the one hand, he is opening his heart to share the details of his many loving relationships. On the other hand, he is dry-humping a chair in front of us - and there are apparently just as many positions with chairs as with human couplings.
There are also obsessive relationships, and abusive relationships. There is betrayal, and violence. But there is also great tenderness. Just as much as we laugh at the notion of an IKEA catalogue as porn, we are drawn in by the sincerity with which Oehrlein expresses his affection for the objects of his desire.
Playwright/director Raymond Luczak's script is a smart and powerful one. Though it is essentially a man recounting his entire romantic history in linear fashion, because it is such an unusual situation, the audience can never get ahead of the script, anticipate what might be coming next. The script never rambles. It's always clearly heading somewhere, though it never tips its hand. It's a tight, well-constructed piece of work, and the window into a very different world (and I don't mean the world of the deaf). One of the most satisfying things about the experience of this production is that the framework - a deaf actor performing, voiced by another actor - is a given. Hearing or deaf, the audience plugs into the play as they are able, but no one is left out. It's theater, by an actor who just happens to be speaking with his hands, rather than his lips.
There was an emotional remove for me, but that may have been my failing as an audience member. I may have gotten too caught up in examining the mechanics of it all, as it was a new experience for me, to fully allow myself to enter the emotional world of this character. A return trip, or future productions presented in this manner, may allow me the familiarity to lose myself in the story. Deaf Blender Theatre looks like it's continuing to present new work beyond the Fringe, so I may get my chance.
You're not going to see anything else like this at the Fringe (and not just because of the furniture sex). It's a most unique experience and...
Their video trailer
Fringe 2009 - 5:30 Thursday - show #1