When I entered the auditorium recently at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center for a performance of Crying Hands by Norway's Teater Manu, I had the opposite experience.
Never have I entered a theater full of people (about 200, including the actress Marlee Matlin) where there was so little noise. Teater Manu is a sign language theater and about 90% of the audience were deaf people. Flo, Ryan and I dropped our voices to a whisper, instinctively reacting to the quiet environment, then realized that was ridiculous.
|From left, Eitan Zuckerman, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen,
Ipek D. Mehlum in Teater Manu's production of Crying Hands.
I knew that I was about to see a play presented in both sign language and oral narration, but now I vaguely wondered if there were different customs among the deaf in the theatergoing experience itself. Flo recommended the play since she is taking a course in "deaf culture." It was the first time I had heard that expression.
Artistic director Mira Zuckerman introduced Teater Manu and the production, explaining that there had been some problem with lights. After she finished, the audience raised their arms and wiggled their hands. It was the first time I had seen deaf people applaud.
The set we were viewing was sparse - a gray rear wall and six chairs, two bearing Nazi uniforms, two with civilian clothing and two with prison clothing. The signing actors, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum, sat on two chairs. A third signing actor, Eitan Zuckerman, stood at stage left and narrated in sign language. "Voice actor" Kjersti Fjeldstad sat at stage right and narrated in spoken language.
|Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum
Hans is a deaf boy who tells us that as he grows up in Berlin, he is fascinated by motorcycles and becomes good at maintaining them. Attracted by Hitler's vision of a strong Germany, he joins the youth wing of the Nazi party. He enthusiastically goes on group rides with other boys in uniform and casually mentions that sometimes they would "have fun teasing and harassing Jews."
Gertrud, who can hear, grows up in a middle-class family and is interested in science from a young age. She becomes a doctor, interested in healing "society and people," and begins to explore theories of how to improve the human race. The Nazi party, she believes, is "the new doctor for the German people" and she becomes a proponent of eugenics to "improve the gene pool."
As they tell their stories, photos curated by video designer Simon Valentine are projected against the back wall, sometimes accompanied by sound effects. Clearly, Baardson wants to include the hearing audience. Sometimes the sound effects, such as the rumble of motorcycles, had a tactile component that could be felt by the deaf viewers.
As we hear of Hitler consolidating his power, both actors face the back wall, where a photograph of a giant Nazi rally is projected, and slowly, chillingly raise their arms in the "Sieg Heil" salute.
Then, things begin to turn.
|Voice actor Kjersti Fjeldstad
Gertrud, who says she "did not consider Jews a threat," finds her professional and social position upended when it is discovered she had a Jewish grandmother. Now she is part of the "final solution" and put on a train to Auschwitz.
Hans and Gertrud are forced into survival mode and witness scenes of horror and torture, some involving children. This section of the play is the most difficult to endure. It is here where we learn of the terrible reason for the play's title. For this hearing listener, the steady tone of voice actor Fjeldstad made it almost bearable.
One reason Crying Hands is so powerful is that it is a tale of Nazi Germany where the protagonists started as the oppressors, then ended up in the opposite space.
Could it happen again? Of course. There have been genocides since World War II - Cambodia, Rwanda. Perhaps plays such as Crying Hands and groups such as Teater Manu appeal to the best in humanity sometimes by showing us the worst.
At the end of the play, the hearing members of the audience clapped, the deaf members raised their hands and waved their fingers -- and also stomped their feet. It was the first time I had experienced an audience for whom vibration was more important than sound. There's a lot to learn about deaf culture.