Richard Donelly, Stephen Thorne, Joe Wilson, Jr.,
and Rachael Warren in Boots on the Ground

(Photo © T Charles Erickson)
Richard Donelly, Stephen Thorne, Joe Wilson, Jr.,
and Rachael Warren in Boots on the Ground
(Photo © T Charles Erickson)
The Iraq War is both omnipresent and invisible. This is one of the things that Laura Kepley and D. Salem Smith discovered as they interviewed fellow Rhode Islanders for their documentary theater piece Boots on the Ground, currently playing at Trinity Repertory in Providence. "Some are experiencing the war directly," says Smith. "Others are going about their lives as if nothing's happened."

The project started out as the brainchild of Amanda Dehnert, Trinity's acting artistic director, who wanted a topical play that focused on issues of immediate concern to Rhode Islanders. The title of the piece refers to a euphemism for overseas deployment. "This is a huge issue in our state," says Kepley, who is also directing the show. "The Rhode Island National Guard is our fourth largest employer. Over four thousand Rhode Islanders have served, some of them multiple times."

The co-authors were careful to keep their own political opinions out of the piece as much as possible, choosing instead to showcase a wide variety of feelings and perspectives on the war. They found their interview subjects through newspaper ads and through word of mouth. "Once you talk to one person, you find out about others," says Smith. "Suddenly you're cold-calling total strangers, asking to be invited into their homes, then sitting for two hours and tape-recording them. People were incredibly open. Some were hesitant about commenting on things that are political and deeply personal but, in general, we were really welcomed."

Kepley notes that, while some interviewees chose to remain anonymous, most wanted to have their real names used in the show. From nearly 200 hours of recordings, Kepley and Smith crafted a 90-minute piece that's brought to life by a five person cast. "The actors are incredibly hardworking and dedicated to this process," says Kepley. "They listened to the interviews multiple times; our process was about exploring and honoring the spirit and integrity of the people rather than a cold mimicry or imitation of them."

Asked how their process differs from that of other documentary theater practitioners such as Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror) or the Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project), Kepley replies that those artists are often outsiders who come in, do their interviews, and then leave. "We are locally based and are debuting this piece here in our community," she says. "The people in our audience are seeing their neighbors on stage."

-- D.B.

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"Hearing students often have trouble with Shakespeare, so imagine deaf students trying to get it." Thus remarks Mimi Kenney Smith, artistic director of the Amaryllis Theatre Company, which has brought its touring production of Much Ado About Nothing to the preeminent college for deaf students: Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. While there are a growing number of theater companies by and for the deaf, Amaryllis is the only one dedicated to translating and performing the Bard's works in American Sign Language. The translation of each play alone takes about a year, in part because the Elizabethan words need to be converted into contemporary English. The resulting text is rewritten to respect the integrity of the original poetry and then handed to a troupe of deaf actors to translate into appropriate signs.

On one hand, Much Ado presents the company with some particular problems, like its many malapropisms (e.g. Dogberry confusing the word "dissembly" with "assembly"). On the other hand, Beatrice and Benedick's witty repartee can almost resemble a duel, and if a character is frustrated or wants to get a point across, he can always sign "bigger." Hearing audience members who are concerned that they may not understand the play need not worry; some actors voice the lines while the others are signing them. "We did have some hearing people in the audience for our first production," Smith recalls, "and every one of them said that they understood more with the combination of gesture and spoken word than they would if it had been a traditional production."

Amaryllis isn't yet eligible to receive government aid, but that might turn out to be a mixed blessing; The New York Times recently reported that NEA funding cuts have left other deaf theater companies who depend on them reeling. Smith hopes that the NEA will reconsider. "There's an injustice done to students who are deaf in not being able to share with them the work of one of the icons of Western culture," she asserts.

-- A.K.

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Anne Rehner in Abuelos
Photo © Jasmin Hunter
Anne Rehner in Abuelos
Photo © Jasmin Hunter
As heated debates about immigration continue to divide the country, Jeff Symes chimes in with his new play Abuelos, which is being presented by the Players' Ring in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Loosely inspired by the author's recent journey to New Mexico, the play follows a family that returns to the Southwest after spending most of their lives in an unnamed New England town.

While abuelos means "grandparents" in Spanish, the title actually refers to a figure in a traditional dance of the Hispanics and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. "These characters represent the elders who come over the mountains and into the village," says Symes. "Sometimes they're scary and frightening characters, and sometimes they're very funny." Although the show incorporates elements of the dance, the playwright has made an effort to avoid representing anything literally; for example, the characters refer to a fictitious tribe called the Tiwa, which is in fact the name of a language spoken by many Native Americans.

Director Todd Hunter first searched for Native American actors locally and then turned to Maine and Massachusetts. "My initial concern was that we cast the show properly," he says. In the end, the long search yielded only Caucasian actors, but they are all committed to treating the topic with respect and sensitivity. "I'm very proud of the cast that I chose," Hunter enthuses. He adds that the casting may be seen as reflecting the spirit of the play, which "underlines the similarities between all of us rather than emphasizing the differences."

-- A.K.