Cahoots Theatre’s Ultrasound is Rich and Interesting
A day later, I am still digesting Adam Pottle’s play Ultrasound, which opens tonight at Theatre Passe Muraille. When I arrived home after the production and some vigorous post-show discussion with my companions for the evening, our daughter asked: “Was it good? Did you like it?” Without hesitation, I replied: “It was very, very good. But it’s not really a play you can ‘like’.”
Ultrasound tells the story of a straight couple, one Deaf and one Hard of Hearing, who have come to the point of discussing whether they would like to have a baby. The process is complicated and informed by their politics around hearing and Deafness, as is their relationship. Miranda, played excellently by Elizabeth Morris, is struggling to hold on to her residual hearing and speech in her work as an actor and this is echoed in her primary friendship with a hearing woman (with whom she speaks regularly on the telephone).
Her husband Alphonse (the equally outstanding Chris Dodd) is Deaf and communicates only in sign language, having given up his oral school speaking as a political act at the urging of his close friend, Nick, a manualist and Deaf culture activist. The pair are in some disagreement about how and whether they should choose to add to their family, and that disagreement builds and intensifies over time.
The play itself is challenging and appropriately robust, not at all didactic even though some of the material might be really new for hearing audiences. I was aware during the piece that many hearing people might not have any idea that Deaf culture was even a thing, or how ASL works and what distinguishes it from SEE (there’s some tension between Miranda and Alphonse’s signing onstage in this), or the concept of Deaf of Deaf (a Deaf child of Deaf parents; a child who has a significant language advantage since they are raised from birth in their native language).
Yet Pottle makes the choice not to do very much exposition about any of it; he situates the play as though the audience is expected to have some familiarity and offers just enough context for us to catch up if we’re willing to work for it. Stylistically it mirrors the experience of Deaf people navigating an audist culture, and in that way I loved it.
I confess that I am concerned that some audience members will write the play off as being either oversimplified or impenetrable because of it. On the other hand, I applaud Pottle’s bold artistic choice to give the audience a big task and let us grapple, with an appropriately big reward – the chewy, complexly-flavored problems the primary plots contain.
Actors Morris and Dodd give moving and invested performances in Ultrasound, and they are well-directed by Marjorie Chan. There are plenty of ways in the larger world that sign language becomes a spectacle rather than a communication style, and yet so few of which are evident here – Chan avoids them nicely, while also allowing the actors a lot of…a lot of room. Without spoiling, they need it for all the emotional work they have to do in this production. The surtitle projections follow the actors around the stage, which gives them a satisfyingly personal and familiar feel (much more so than stationary surtitles).
Ultrasound is a rich and interesting piece of work, done great justice here by the company.
- Ultrasound is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) until May 15, 2016.
- Performances run Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30 pm with weekend matinees at 2 pm. There are several special performances, including two with Deaf Interpreters and a Relaxed Performance (see website for details)
- Ticket prices are $33 for adults, $28 for seniors, $20 for arts workers with valid ID, and $17 for those under 30. Matinee performances are $22.50 in advance or PWYC at the door beginning at 12 pm. Group rates available for orders of 10 or more at $25 per ticket.
- Tickets can be purchased online or at the Passe Muraille box office beginning four hours before the performance. Call (416) 504-7529 for more information.
photo of Elizabeth Morris and Chris Dodd by Michael Cooper