Simply Magical

'Big River' is an enormously satisfying emotional experience, while 'The Tempest' is a glittery display of savory visuals

by Jolene Munch
Published on March 31, 2005, 12:00am | Comments

It's easy to mistake Big River for just another fluff musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After all, its jazzy ragtime and grassy folk tunes seem simple enough, and the classic American novel about the only boy who will help his friend Jim to free territory is well-tread material in public schools across the country. But Ford's Theatre's magical co-production with Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre is anything but ordinary. Under the direction and choreography of Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, a cast of hearing and deaf actors work in tandem, performing the entire production in American Sign Language (ASL). In a rather miraculous way, such ingenious pairing supplies voices to the voiceless and music to those unable to hear it. Yet the mouth of Big River is anything but silent.


Rollin' on the river: Corrigan (front) with cast
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In a production rife with talent of the audible and inaudible variety, the music of Roger Miller is given stellar treatment from singers who dazzle and deaf actors who outshine his catchy melodies and lyrics. Bill O'Brien introduces himself early on as narrator Mark Twain, who also lends a voice to his hero Huck, played with great physical comedy by local Gallaudet student Christopher Corrigan. Corrigan and O'Brien forge an ideal match, with O'Brien masterfully strumming his banjo and singing "I, Huckleberry Me " while Corrigan climbs up an imaginary tree. The scenery, as designed by Ray Klausen, features larger-than-life pages ripped from Twain's book, and a wide raft complemented by Michael Gilliam's bright blue lighting for Huck and Jim's journey downstream.

With Peter Fitzgerald's flawless sound design -- no small feat with Ford's cavernous acoustics -- numbers such as "Muddy Water " and "The Royal Nonesuch " have never sounded better, while Jeannette Bayardelle's effortless rendition of "How Blest We Are " nearly stops the show. But without doubt, Michael McElroy's Jim is the show's irrefutable star, guiding Miller's gorgeous "Worlds Apart " and a breathtaking version of "Waitin' for the Light to Shine. " McElroy offers deep, luxurious kisses to each of his musical notes, culminating in an irresistible affair that trumps the production's unique approach with ASL (as well as his fellow castmates) with unbelievably rich, full vocals.

Ford's Theatre
511 Tenth St. NW
$25-$48
202-347-4833
www.fordstheatre.org

Twain's story about a young misfit who stages his own death, then sets off floatin' down the river with an enslaved friend seeking freedom is a moral tale of friendship and loyalty, centered around the apparent differences we share as part of the human race. But beyond its obvious fable of racism and prejudice, the layering of deaf actors with hearing audiences somehow adds a deeper resonance, connecting the material and rendering it more relevant on a broader scale. Big River has never been more touching or more profound.

Of course, who needs formal dance choreography when ASL is used in so many creative ways? Calhoun's crisp staging is perfectly paced by a cast who revel in their twin identities. Several roles are double cast (most notably Huck's father, played by Darren Frazier and Jay Lusteck), but through lucid choreography and singers who maintain their share of the limelight, the focus always remains clear. When Andres Otalora, a deaf actor playing the role of the young fool, dances his way through the jingly-jangly music of "Arkansas, " David Michael Roth rests downstage, providing the character's quirky vocals.

Big River re-affirms the power of theater to bridge gaps between two separate communities. It is one of the most satisfying emotional experiences in a theater that you must see to believe, especially the moments that transcend a staged production and flood into reality, building bridges and speaking for those who have no voice, in more ways than one.

When The Shakespeare Theatre tapped rising star Kate Whoriskey to direct The Tempest, they must have recognized the young talent as the perfect captain to helm the project. Whoriskey's wand stirs Shakespeare's final contribution into a multi-cultural cauldron, drawing upon a "fusion of African and Arabic influences. " Her mildly-inspired Caribbean island embraces references plucked from English, Classical Arabic, Swahili, and "Arabic English " sources (a glossary of terms is highlighted in the program), and the result is a spectacular feast of language and artful aesthetics.



Whoriskey works her "rough magic " to focus the story of Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan (Philip Goodwin), on the servant he frees from under his spell, Ariel (Daniel Breaker). Punctuated by strong opening and closing sequences, Whoriskey's production is illuminated by an indelible performance from Breaker, who performs his role singing and flying around the stage in a constrictive harness, which only relays a more powerful resolution once he is granted freedom. Goodwin is a subdued and intuitive Prospero, allowing the talents of Samantha Soule (whose smitten daughter Miranda borders on the melodramatic) and Duane Boutté (a charming Ferdinand) to grace center stage. Floyd King and Hugh Nees also offer lively comic turns as drunken soldiers Stephano and Trinculo.

But the real highlights upon Walt Spangler's sea-wrecked set are the otherworldly costumes of Catherine Zuber, whose beasts and birds are fashionably lit by Charlie Morrison. All elements of colorful grandeur burst to life in one of the most splendid wedding scenes staged in recent memory.

The Tempest
To May 22
The Shakespeare Theatre
450 7th St. NW
$12.75-$68
202-547-1122
www.shakespearetheatre.org

Without compromising Shakespeare's stormy saga of human nature and the power of forgiveness and redemption, Whoriskey's glittery display features everything you want in a production of The Tempest -- savory visuals, exciting adventure, and a few hours respite from everyday turbulent winds.