Before there was American Sign Language, there were the localized languages of many communities finding themselves in need of a mode of communication for an increasingly deaf populous. In late 19th century Martha’s Vineyard, the likelihood was great that you or a family member would develop hereditary deafness. Without a centralized language to teach, communities like Martha’s Vineyard made efforts to speak and sign their own variations on ASL. This is the world that Red Theater’s “R+J: The Vineyard” inhabits; posing the question: what if our traditional star crossed Romeo and Juliet had to find alternate means of declaring their love beyond spoken words?

The conceptual team behind Red Theaters’ English and ASL translated Romeo and Juliet, producer Janette Bauer and director Aaron Sawyer, have developed a challenging and rewarding adaptation. Part of what makes this work extraordinary, is how it calls upon audience members to experience their surroundings with the same impairments that deafness would bring. Not every signed or spoken exchange is spelled out in perfect detail, and we rely on characters to fill us in on the details. Auditory distortions punctuate scenes the same way music does, and what we can’t hear, we can feel with thuds and bangs working as effectively as shouts.

Both Romeo (Brendan Connelly) and Juliet (McKenna Liesman) are the youngest progeny from warring houses, as you probably remember, but each is also born deaf into hearing families. Romeo is content to cause trouble and help his friends Mercutio (Christopher Schroeder) and Benvolio (Brenda Scott Wlazlo) both knit and translate bawdy fairy stories, until he spies Juliet at a gathering of his sworn enemies. In wordless exchanges they meet, woo each other and marry, to the chagrin of family members who plead they use common sense, like Nurse (Beth Harris), or are keen to trot out better matches, like Lady Capulet (Lona Livingston).

Connelly and Liesman are effortlessly charming as the titular couple, and operate without the assistance of very many words. However, with their dialogue being so well known, it is a more rewarding task to find things like Queen Mab and the Eastern sun in observing their gestures.  In the end, tempers flare, blood boils over, and almost poignantly, lives are lost, regained and lost again due to simple missed communication. It’s surprising to see how many times Shakespeare makes reference to deafness and signing with “madmen with no ears” or “let lips do what hands do”.  

This production features both deaf and hearing actors, supertitles for some more intricate exchanges, and interpreters as needed for audience members. The concept that Sawyer and Bauer have concocted involves more than just comprehension; they want to immerse every person in the history, culture and stigmas of deafness. We are subject to the sting of ridicule when characters employ a deaf accent to mock our title characters, and subject to arcane and painful turn-of-the-century deafness “healing” techniques. Deafness factors into the atmospheric sounds and the music employed for the production (designed by Patrick O’Brien). The soundscape is designed to give us the feel of audial distortions that many deaf individuals experience, adding an additional disorienting layer to confusion and anxiety. Theatergoers may note that characters, stomp, bang and clang more often than shouting-, which highlights jolts and vibrations as another form of stage communication. With a mix of deaf and hearing actors, the stomping felt onstage may also be a sensory cue for an actor to enter for their next scene.

In a talk-back session following the evening’s production, the production team and actors took to the stage alongside a number of interpreters, and bonded over the challenging work of creating a script in motion. The storytelling is unique to this production and the actors signing, who span the gamut from first timers to veterans. McKenna Liesman (Juliet) had committed the entire script to memory before learning nearly all of her dialogue would be signed. The learning process worked to unite the cast as a bilingual unit. Once immersed in the very visual language, hearing performers noted how easy it became to forget to hear their audible cues when their full attentions were engaged in seeing and feeling their next stage action. A round of signed applause (hands raised in the air and twisted once or twice) came up from hearing interpreters in the audience who could empathize;  forgetting to hear in conversation came naturally for them, as well.

“R+J: The Vineyard” is a Public Access Theater production made possible by the Saints, The Chicago Community Trust and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and free tickets are available through December 12th.

Stay tuned to SPORK! to see photos and videos of the cast and crew talking about their experience with this ASL production.


The Show: R+J: The Vineyard (Oracle Productions & Red Theater)

Venue: Oracle Theater (3809 N. Broadway)



You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner