Also see Sharon's review of The Threepenny Opera
His friend Donny is, if not the brains of the operation (that position remains unfortunately empty), the man at the center of things. He's the one who owns the junk shop where the action takes place; he's the one who spotted their future victim (a fellow who paid a lot for a buffalo nickel); and he's the one who has taken the third would-be burglar, young Bobby, under his wing. Paul Raci's Donny is a fast-talkin' player, but he seems relatively content. He's not talking a big game; there's no one last big score he's going forhe'll be happy just to get his share when they successfully break into the house of the coin buyer.
As with all Deaf West productions, the performance is fully accessible to deaf and hearing audiences alike. In American Buffalo, though, the approach used is somewhat complex, but the result is shockingly simple. Kotsur and the character he plays are both deaf; he signs all his lines. (Hearing audience members who don't understand ASL can follow what Teach is saying thanks to a voice actor whose performance is piped in on wireless headphones for those who need them.) The other two characters are hearing; they are played by hearing actors who can sign, but don't always do. While Donny and Bobby will sign what they're saying for Teach's benefit, they revert to solely using speech when he's not around. (Deaf audience members are kept in the loop with supertitles.) And when Donny is communicating with Teach in ASL, there's no need for him to speak, so he doesn'tand another voice actor shows up in your headset. Now, sure, you might need a flowchart to follow all of that, and it seems redundant to have a voice actor voicing Donny when Paul Raci is certainly capable of speaking for himself, but here's the takeaway: The actors on stage are doing absolutely nothing extraneous for the audience's benefit. Deaf audience members get supertitles; hearing audience members get headsetsbut as far as the actors on stage are concerned, they speak or sign only when Donny, Bobby, and Teach actually would. It is beautifully, astonishingly pure.
This adds another dimension to the play, as it touches on issues of communication between deaf and hearing individuals. Bobby is played by a Cal State L.A. student, M. Ryan Pest, who learned ASL for this play. It shows; his signing gets the words across, but has no real command of the imagery of which the language is capable. But this works for Bobbyhe's a kid who just learned a little sign out of respect for Teach. Donny, who goes back a lot further with Teach, is a fluent signer. But when Donny and Bobby want to have a word in private while Teach is in the room, they just drop their hands and speak, leaving Teach excluded. And later, when Teach gets in Bobby's face and angrily questions if Bobby understands his meaning, it isn't only the threat that, perhaps, Mamet envisioned. Part of it is a genuine inquiry, as the deaf man needs to make sure he's actually being understood by the novice signer. The feeling you get watching this is similar to how you feel watching a new take on a Shakespeare playthe language is exactly the same; but the production has found something new to explore in it.
If you're wondering whether ASL can convey the rhythms of Mamet's own poetry, it can. But what could use some additional effort here is the speed of the dialogue. Each individual line comes across at the right speed, but, as conversation, the fast pace isn't always there, and the show sometimes drags. If Kotsur and Raci can jump on each other's lines a bit more, occasionally emphasizing the mere act of speaking (or signing) over the meaning of the words being said, this production would be even better. As it stands, it's a good production surrounding an excellent performance.
American Buffalo runs at the State Playhouse on the campus of Cal State L.A. through March 8, 2015. For tickets and information, see www.DeafWest.org.
Cal State L.A. Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance (Department Chair John M. Kennedy) and Deaf West Theatre (Artistic Director DJ Kurs) present American Buffalo by David Mamet. Directed by Stephen Rothman. Scenic Design Ken George; Lighting Design Michael Gend and G. Shizuko Herrera; Costume Design Raquel Barreto; Sound Design Joe Cerqua; Production Design E. Martin Gimenez; Fight Direction Collin Bressie; ASL Masters Linda Bove and DJ Kurs; Props Master Stephanie Gardea; Publicity Lucy Pollak; Production Stage Manager Jessica Morataya; Produced by Meredith Greenburg and DJ Kurs; Assistant Director Will Banno Rothman.