Saturday, March 1, 2014


The first scene opens during a family argument. Two older parents and three adult children. One of the younger men sits silent at the far end of the table, not engaged, head bent forward. The father eventually finds his way over to him and tries to pull him into the discussion but the son remains distant, a bit withdrawn.

He is profoundly deaf, and he's missed a lot of what's been said, partly by choice (his head is down and so he can't read lips) but also because people's backs have been towards him. Music has been played. Aside from the father's approach at the end, no one has really tried to draw Billy into the family dynamic. He sits on the perimeter at a safe distance.

The parents made a choice they wouldn't 'sign' to their child and would teach him lip reading instead. He wears aids and it is a real effort for him to speak, especially consonants.

The play takes a turn when Billy falls in love. He is standing in line, waiting to use the washroom at a night club where a lot of deaf youth hang out. A young woman stands beside him. She starts signing, he speaks to tell her he has no idea what she's trying to say. In a few short minutes he learns she's a hearing person who signs because her parents are deaf, and she herself is starting to lose her hearing. She envies him because he's never heard, so he doesn't know what he's missing. He envies her, because she has.

One of the themes Tribes explored was the notion of communities and how they are formed, through families or communities of interest or pairs of lovers. Personally I was more interested in the ideas around communicating, what it really means to listen, and the ways we connect.

When signing happened, text was often projected onto the walls of the set so you could 'see' the dialogue. I almost wished they had done so throughout the play, because from where we were sitting, I was missing a lot of the dialogue myself, even though I was wearing my own hearing aids. But so were the not-so-hard of hearing struggling. The acoustics weren't the greatest and this added another element to the play, intentional or not.

Many of the actors were deaf or hearing impaired, and the signing was so graceful at times it seemed like dance.

Turns out the playwright, Raine, is the grand-niece of Dr. Zhivago author Boris Pasternak

Canadian Stage summarizes it this way:  Billy is deaf but his unconventional family has tried to raise him as part of the hearing world. It's not until he meets Sylvia, a young woman who is becoming deaf herself, that he finally discovers what it means to be heard. Winner of the 2012 Drama Desk and New York Theatre Critics Circle awards, Tribes is an intelligent, provocative, and jarringly emotional play that gets its Canadian premiere at Canadian Stage.

I try to avoid theatre reviews until after I've formed my own opinion. Just reading the Globe and Mail now: ... for the most part this is a witty, gutsy and involving drama, which has already picked up its share of accolades in Britain – where it premiered in 2010 at London’s Royal Court Theatre – and off-Broadway. Theatrefront’s production, part of the Canadian Stage season, is ably directed by Daryl Cloran and powered by some terrific acting... This is one show that leaves you with your eyes and ears wide open, having acquired a fresh appreciation of both senses.

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