The Deaf world, from the inside out: Deafy, a Fringe review

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Follow The Signs Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

Deafy (Backstage Theatre)

Then character we meet in Deafy is droll, wry, a master of the eye roll/shrug combo, a guy who’s in touch with the absurdities of his world.

Nathan Jesper is Deaf. And his world isn’t easy to live in. It’s filled with non sequiturs and obstructions of all shapes and sizes, minor aggravations to major blockades. It’s riddled with reminders, as if he needed them, that he’s on the outside looking in. And they cumulate.

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That Deafy is multilingual — in spoken English, sign language, and captioning — is to the point, theatrically and dramatically. Nathan, who has a gig as a Deaf public speaker and educator, lives in three languages. And he’s in a fractious power struggle with his captions; who’s in charge? He glances suspiciously over his shoulder at them from time to time to head off insurrection.

Nathan’s dreams are heartbreakingly ordinary (being Deaf ups the ante on Seinfeldian comedy). He wants to hang out with friends, have a few beers at his local with his buddy Len, get a driver’s licence. And as he recounts, in funny stories with an absurdist edge, things go awry. The bartender claims he can’t turn on the TV captions on the hockey game, and Len, a Leafs fan, is outraged. No interpreters are allowed for drivers’ tests (whaaaat?), so Nathan recount’s Len’s crackbrained plot (and we all learn the sign for “completely insane”).

Chris Dodd’s very funny, very moving tragic-comedy arrives at the Fringe in a crack production directed by Ashley Wright. The play is gracefully formed, and vivid in capturing quotidian reality through Nathan’s eyes. Dave Clarke’s sound score, an elusive aural landscape of vibrations, heartbeats, far-away bells, is meaningful. And Dodd, who’s Deaf (he’s founder of the SOUND OFF Deaf Theatre Festival), is an exceptionally expressive, physically dexterous actor. In one scene, he conjures an entire room of Deaf people signing — “six pairs of arms!” — at a living room TV watching party.

He has one of those malleable faces that registers incredulity, or mounting exasperation, in a delivery you associate with the Borscht Belt comedians of old. And it makes him a captivating eyeball-to-eyeball storyteller, a sad clown with an air of “I rest my case.”

The colour palette darkens, the ripples spread. And it’s for us to figure out how much. Nathan drifts toward isolation, caught between the excluding impulses of both the hearing and the Deaf world. Loneliness, the need to belong … they’re not exclusive Deaf property. Nathan’s silent encounter with a homeless man in an airport will break your heart.

Wright’s production, a rhythm of pauses and frantic physicality, gives those moments room to breathe and sink in. A rich, entertaining Fringe experience. Highly recommended.

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