Charlie Gordon is now deaf.
Yes, the main character in the many incarnations of Flowers for Algernon now signs instead of speaks, in the latest version of Daniel Keyes‘ tale of an intellectually disabled man who undergoes experimental surgery to increase his IQ to the level of a genius.
It’s another signed-and-voiced adaptation from Deaf West Theatre, in a rental production at Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, working from the 1969 play by David Rogers (who died in June), directed by Matthew McCray, opening Saturday.
Charlie’s saga first appeared in 1959, in the form of a Hugo Award-winning short story, published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It then transformed into the 1961 teleplay The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, a full-length book by Keyes in 1965, the 1968 feature film Charly (which garnered a best actor Oscar for Cliff Robertson), Rogers’ 1969 play and a 1979 stage musical, Charlie and Algernon. The musical featured a score by Charles Strouse and Rogers, with Michael Crawford playing Charlie in the premiere, in London.
“I actually suggested this work to Deaf West’s artistic director, David Kurs,” recalls McCray, who is currently balancing this interview while monitoring a KCAL News television crew that is also paying a visit to rehearsals a few days before the play’s official opening.
McCray once directed a workshop production of a play that had ASL and hearing actors, but it was a much smaller challenge than mounting a fully staged production, especially one as complicated as Flowers for Algernon, he says. “Actually, Kurs picked the play out of a few options I presented. I think he wanted Deaf West to rise to the challenge. Do you know that the book version actually was banned for a while when it first came out? Critics and parents thought it was too controversial for children.”
Deaf West Theatre is no stranger to adapting challenging works that are geared for both deaf and general audiences. Its record of signed-and-voiced stage adaptations includes The Gin Game (1990), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1991). Shirley Valentine (1992), Of Mice and Men (1994), A Streetcar Named Desire (2000), Oliver! (2000), Big River (2001), Open Window (2005), Sleeping Beauty Wakes (2007), Pippin (2009) and Cyrano (2012).
Staging an ASL/spoken word production is very different from McCray’s previous jobs. “The entire rehearsal etiquette gets redefined when you take away the sense of hearing,” McCray affirms. “So often in theater, you’re just shouting and barking things because you have to tell everybody at once. For this type of production, that director’s tool is completely changed and you have to create a new rehearsal experience. You have to get everybody’s eyes on you, first. Then you have to make sure the interpreter is with you. Then you have to make sure that they are looking at the interpreter. Then you can give the instruction. Then you have to hope they have received exactly what you intended for them to receive. So, this really slows down the process of rehearsal.”
McCray rolls his eyes to underscore his current time management situation. “We’re in tech right now, so the process is heating up even more. It is definitely challenging. The flip side of that is it’s incredibly rewarding when it does work, when you figure it out, when you get to the working process of getting everybody on the same page.”
McCray believes that turning Rogers’ 1969 stage play into a signed-and-voiced production actually underscores the dramatic richness of the story. “It really is a powerful combination. You’re dealing with disability in the story. It is not a direct story about deafness, so it allows for a conversation about disability and identity, and the differences between them. It also allows for the metaphor of using the deaf actor and having the bilingual format to deal with a different reality. In this play, we are rarely talking about deafness, but indirectly, we are constantly talking about deafness. It is the vehicle that the message travels in.”
At this moment, ASL actor Daniel Durant, who portrays Charlie, has been released from his KCAL interview and explains the process he is going through to communicate Charlie’s intellectual and social evolution. “When I got the role, I was wondering how I could portray Charlie when he is mentally disabled. I figured I would sign in the same labored, rudimentary way I did when I was six. I also had to incorporate the physical mannerisms of someone who was intellectually at a low level. I practiced a lot with the ASL master on the show who was a lot of help, showing me how children would sign at a young age.” Durant has been acting since he was six but considered himself a professional only when he joined Deaf West’s production of Cyrano in 2012 at the Fountain Theatre.
McCray, who recently directed the West Coast premiere of Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, is making his debut as a director at Deaf West, having accrued an impressive body of work. His extensive directorial credits include the US premiere of Martin Crimp’s The City and world premieres of Death of a Salesgirl by Patricia Scanlon and of his own original work, Eternal Thou, which received a 2013 remount at South Coast Repertory through StudioSCR.
He is the founding artistic director of Son of Semele Ensemble (SOSE). In the last 13 years, McCray has produced over 25 plays for SOSE and has grown the company into both a production company for its LA-based membership ensemble and an incubator organization serving progressive theater artists from across the country. He was in residence with Center Theatre Group in 2008 developing Fencerow to Fencerow, his original play about American agriculture, funded, in part, by a grant from the EST/Sloan Foundation Project in Science and Technology.
When presented with his long list of directorial credits, McCray laughs. He offers, “This is not the direction I thought I would be going, growing up in Colorado. My father was a musician and I started out to be a musical performer.”
He notes that Flowers For Algernon “is an old play. It calls for 27 actors and had 57 scenes. You can’t do that today. There also are four children in it, plus a mouse. It is the old idea of the American standard drama. We have pared it down to a cast of 12, mouse included, with a highly modular transformative set. There are seven hearing and five deaf actors.”
During the project’s development, he continues, “a good deal of the conversations between David [Kurs] and I had to do with having work on a stage as small as the one at Whitefire. The plus side of this is we figured it out.”
Flowers for Algernon, Whitefire Theatre,
13500 Ventura Blvd.,
Sherman Oaks 91423. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through Nov 3. Tickets: $30. www.deafwest.org.
**All Flowers for Algernon production photos by Wayne Betts, Jr.