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Deaf West’s “My Sister in This House” adds dimension to previous work

April 24, 2010

Listen to this story here.

80 years ago, the story of the Papin sisters took France by storm. They were white slaves to an upper class family, and it drove them to murder.

Playwright Wendy Kesselman wrote “My Sister in This House,” a play based on the sisters’ story, in 1982.  Now, with the help of director Michael Unger, she has adapted the script for a non-hearing audience at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood.

I met with Unger, the deaf actresses (Deanne Bray and Amber Zion), and their speaking counterparts (Darrin Revitz and Lindsay Evans). Onstage, Bray and Zion use sign language to communicate with each other and many in the audience. Revitz and Evans speak the lines for the hearing audience. Unger also implements captioning and other effects. 

Elizabeth Greene interpreted in this interview for Bray, who plays Christine, and Zion, who portrays Lea.  

EG: [Interpreting for Christine] “It’s clear that Christine believed that, in a past life, she was Lea’s husband.” It’s believed that Christine and Lea were believed to have become lovers while in their twenties. 

EG: [Interpreting for Christine] “They were very, very close, but if they were lovers, it was in an innocent fashion.” 

When they were working as maids for the Lancelins in Le Mans, France, Christine and Lea were not allowed to converse with the residents, leave the house, or even use the bathroom – they had to use a bucket. Until one day…

EG: [Interpreting for Christine] “We exchanged instruments with each other. I did exchange a hammer and other instruments with my sister, and we washed all of the blood off of ourselves. And then, when we came back, we put on our nightgowns and sat in bed, waiting for authorities to arrive.” 

Deanne Bray

They had brutally killed Madam Lancelin and her young daughter. I asked Amber if she could relate to the sense of isolation her character must have felt.

EG: [Interpreting for Lea] “Yes, I can relate to it because, growing up deaf, I had a lot of oppression, myself, so I do feel a connection with Lea.” 

SJ: I could only imagine the interplay between the deaf and speaking actresses – whether either Lindsay or Darrin ever felt they were interpreting as opposed to acting?

Revitz exclaimed, “No! Because what they’re doing is almost like (EG: “No, no, no!” laughter) … because what they’re doing— 

EG: “Christine wants to add input. Christine’s saying, when it comes time for Amber, who plays the character of Lea, myself, to have emotion or to cry, they are sitting in their chairs, our voice actors, with wet tears rolling down their faces. They are doing the crying, the real crying as much as we are. And when that actually happened in rehearsal, Christine says, director Michael Unger spoke up. He said, I don’t see four women. I see two women.”

Revitz adds, “But I do get intimidated sometimes and I don’t know sign language, so it’s hard to communicate, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, for lack of a better word, what is my ignorance of their language.”

Director Michael Unger demands a level playing field for hearing and non-hearing audiences. He knew, for example, that deaf audience members wouldn’t realize the women were screaming during blackouts. “That is why we added the flashes of light and the rumble of the seats with sub-woofers as opposed to how I originally did it in darkness and the entire murder played out in voice over.  That would, obviously, not work at Deaf West,” he says. 

“These worlds are not equal,” says Revitz. “Michael wanted the hearing audience to be out of their element for a portion of the show and the deaf audience to be out of their element for a portion of the show, which I think mirrors what you’re seeing on stage in that it’s not a parallel world.”

“My Sister in This House” runs through May 30 at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. The double murders in 1933 also prompted French writer Jean Genet to write the play “The Maids.” It opens April 29 at The Moth Theatre in Los Angeles. For a conversation with the actresses in “The Maids,” click here.

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