By Natalie Mislang Mann
The setting appears lonely, abandoned. A wooden farmer’s table stands toward the front of the stage as books slide from their upright positions on a back wall shelf. To the right is a chalkboard, where a piano sits in front. The curious viewer wonders if the space’s occupants fear that chalk dust might ruin the instrument. Would they notice the polluted notes? Enter discord as a clamorous British family crosses the stage. Welcome to the Barrow Street Theatre’s production of tribes at the Mark Taper Forum, where a sensory, impressionistic journey alternates between what is heard and unheard.
Billy, played by Russell Harvard, is deaf and never learned to sign. Billy, the self-described familial mascot, lip-reads and binds the other familial members to their caricatured bohemian identities. So wrapped up in their personas and aspirations, the members of Billy’s family do not see beyond themselves. Billy’s mother, Beth (Lee Roy Roger’s) is a kimono-clad writer working on her first novel that contains no concrete plot. His father, Christopher (Jeff Still) portrays an obnoxious, dogmatic academic-turned-writer who philosophizes on language. Christopher’s musings are esoteric. At one point, he pronounces that art puts feelings into words. Even Billy’s brother, Daniel (Will Brill), and sister, Ruth (Gayle Rankin), have academic and artistic ambitions. Daniel works on his thesis, while Ruth yearns to be a singer. Unlike the rest of his family, Billy has no artistic or academic role. He sits at the kitchen table, as banter between the other family members oscillates between coarse, injurious and witty. They speak too fast for him to watch their lips form the words that come out of their mouths. When an agitated Christopher complains that all of his kids have returned home, Billy asks what happened. Daniel supplies an abbreviated response. Dad is being annoying, again.
When Billy meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), his life begins to change. Through Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, Billy learns sign language and gains agency by moving out from his family’s home. He refuses to speak to any of them until they learn how to sign. Beth finds this defiance selfish and asks Billy to put herself in her position. Billy tells Beth to put herself in his. For the first time, Ruth speaks to the family’s self-centeredness toward Billy: We are all egotists!
Sometimes Raine’s characters seem over the top. In one scene, a self-pitying Ruth holds a BB gun to her head and shoots several times. Nothing fires. However, Raine’s interplay of high and lowbrow action underpins how the remaining members of the family need to be the center of attention, while depreciating Billy’s value.
Under the direction of David Cromer, the integration of Scott Pask’s scenic design, Keith Parham’s lighting design, Daniel Kluger’s sound design and Jeff Sugg’s projection design transport the play’s narrative through emphasizing the senses. While Tribes’ dialogue is rapid, image and sounds bolster the fleeting conversations. There is no coincidence that Mark Farina’s Dream Machine plays in the background, when Billy meets Sylvia at an art opening for the first time. He begins to think of possibility. Abiding to the land of “what happened” no longer remains an option. Nonspeaking moments, also, stick in the audience’s mind. When Billy and Sylvia sign, words project above the stage or onto walls to flip the experience of the hearing audience; a reminder that closed captioning was initially used to assist the deaf.
Yes, there were times in which the rapid, spoken dialogue came across like an annunciated muffle. At first, this annoyance was like an axe cutting through the performance. The man next to me expressed a similar sentiment. I concurred when he stated that Tribes was written for a more intimate space. Upon reflection, I realized that this would detract from the meaning behind the piece. It is easy to go through life yearning to examine every gesture and nuance from a personal, contrived lens. While these moments could keep the audience at bay, Tribes’ beauty evolves through the total experience. Watching the moments when Beth surrenders to her husband’s request to wear the kimono to Daniel sitting atop the kitchen table as he stares at the moon through the kitchen skylight offers the audience a soft resignation. Raine commands the audience to surrender without imposing language and to look with heart. Seeing Tribes is not just watching a play. It is a process of discovery. Perhaps, sometimes, it is better to just observe.
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Written by Nina Raine
Continues through April 14 at the Mark Taper Forum located at 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.;
No performance on Mondays.
No public performances March 19–22 (student matinees only)
No 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, April 14.
TDD 213.680.4017 for Deaf community information and charge.