For one thing, the production is being performed in the stylized tradition of commedia dell’arte, a centuries-old form distinguished by broad physical gesture and stock comic characters in masks. For another, the adaptation of the Dickens tale is populated by both hearing and deaf actors, under the auspices of the only troupe in the country run by hearing stage professionals in residence at a college for the deaf.
The unusual arrangement, now in its second year, has yielded benefits for the actors and directors of Faction of Fools, a three-year-old company that has navigated the difficult Washington challenge of finding a workable space for its productions. And for Gallaudet students and faculty, the relationship has opened a practical entryway into the city’s theater scene, long a goal of the theater arts department’s chairman, Ethan Sinnott.
Three current Gallaudet students, and one recent graduate, share the stage with five hearing actors in Faction of Fools’ “A Commedia Christmas Carol,” which begins performances in Gallaudet’s Elstad Auditorium on Thursday and runs through Dec. 23. Among them will be senior Michael Sprouse, as a deaf Tiny Tim; one of the intriguing concepts in Factions Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson’s production is of a Scrooge (played by Paul Reisman) whose inability to communicate with his fellow man is evoked in a resistance to Tiny Tim’s need to sign.
“Tim is very free in how he gestures, and how he communicates with people,” explains Lindsey Snyder, an American Sign Language interpreter and holder of the company’s most unusual position: director of access and inclusion. Part of her assignment was to develop a variation of signing for the Cratchits, played by both hearing and deaf actors, that would suggest to deaf audiences not only the story’s period and location — yes, British signing sometimes differs from American, just as accents do — but also a specially intimate family language.
“In that period what a family with a deaf child would do is create a kind of home signing, a system of gestures so that the family could talk to each other,” Snyder adds. “So we’ve really had to experiment with the way we integrate the deaf actors into the play.”
The enrichment infused by collaboration with a college for the deaf is particularly well suited to a company using a form so transparently physical — and one that can sometimes seem to be stuffily archaic: to some, “commedia” conjures hyperbolic clowning at Renaissance festivals. By virtue, though, of the supple modern takes on commedia by companies such as Faction of Fools, the stylized comedy is being reintroduced to American audiences as a viably novel comic alternative. See, for instance, the success of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent commedia staging, via Yale Repertory Theatre, of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century comedy “The Servant of Two Masters.”