Such eye opening joy at Deafferent Theatre’s latest offering The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler at this year’s Fringe Festival inside the North Melbourne Arts Space. As the 2016 brainchild of Jessica Moody and Ilana Charnelle Gelbart, this bilingual company commits itself to making connections between the hearing and Auslan communities. Initially, I had a slight feeling of trepidation walking into the space – not because of the topic, for Ensler’s 1996 play has become one of the most well known and important political pieces of the modern age and is now published in 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries. It was more about how much would I understand when I realised my hearing theatre buddy and I were clearly in the minority – would we enjoy the performance as a whole out of our comfort zone. I need not have worried – Deafferent’s aim of inclusivity is for everyone and we felt instantly at ease with the subtitled screen positioned at the back and verbal voice over accompaniment. But, to be honest, it didn’t take long within this 50 minute performance to ignore the screen preferring to focus just on listening to the vocal aid and instead look wholeheartedly on the four female actors and their hand movements, as well as facial and body expressions.
Director Jessica Moody has carefully chosen a sample of Ensler’s monologues that best suit her ensemble – staying clear of some of the darker, edgier options and favouring the shared experience interview responses. The stage is simple and recognisable – women gathering around a table for a drink, food, and having a gossip about female bodies like many women like to do. Sometimes it did seem that the cast got locked behind the table too much to be fully expressive – rarely venturing out the front but there was a great sense of collegial unity amongst the four actors as they signed and laughed their way throughout the piece as a whole. One of the great rare moments that occurred in front of the table was when Marnie Kerridge got twisted up and arched back trying to look at her vagina early in the set, garnering lots of laughs of approval and setting a fun tone for the rest of the show.
Collectively, the women share their viewpoints on topics such as hair or what would your vagina wear or say if it could talk with a range of creative female personas. Their hand gestures were often recognisable to us hearing audience members, and generated lots of recognition and giggles with both audience communities – from gestures depicting ‘slow down’ to ‘come inside’ or listing clothing items such as ‘diamonds’ or ‘bikinis’ – you realise that this play works extremely well in this dual format and in fact brings something fresh and well considered to Ensler’s philosophy of all women embracing themselves with self love. The other thing that impressed in these shared conversation sections was the considered thoughtfulness in the pacing so that it looked natural and spontaneous – not boring or over rehearsed. Ilana Charnelle Gelbart took most of the vocal lead and used a variety of expressions to convey her cast member’s sign language musings– not rushing, not overstating. She then took the signing lead on the section “The Vagina Workshop” which was delivered with the appropriate amount of confusion and wonder. Livi Beasley showed the perfect innocent awkwardness as she shared her monologue “Because he liked to look at it” though the jacket blocking at its end seemed awkward and ill conceived. Hilary Fisher Stewart got suitably vocal with My Angry Vagina and really authentically connected with her other cast members during all the other pieces. Jessica Murray remained unseen as the Caption Master/Voice Over Artist but perfectly gelled as part of the ensemble adding to the atmosphere with perfect pitch and volume to the variety of moments of horror, cheekiness or delight! The real highlight though was Marnie Kerridge – her comic timing was flawless, her self-deprecating actions and facial expressions spot on and her delivery of the final monologue “I was There in the Room” was absolutely enthralling – presented all as sign language without vocal accompaniment it had humour, pain, relief and beauty. A perfect ending to a really enjoyable production.
In the programme, director Jessica Moody informs us that there is an Auslan sign ‘same same’. And by the end that’s exactly how I felt – bonded to the women on stage and in the audience in our experience of womanhood. Deafferent is to be highly commended on their innovation and approach to theatre. They are one to check out this Fringe season and in future.