Five family members gather around a makeshift dining room table, angrily snapping open pistachios and hurling scowls and swear words across the tabletop. Director Greg Strasser, a School of Music Theatre & Dance senior, pauses his actors to ask:
“Have you guys ever watched an episode of Spongebob?”
The cast evolves into cartoon mode immediately. The scene swells and the scowls deepen. The pistachios begin to fly across the table and dramatic calamity ensues.
No, they’re not rehearsing a sitcom, or an angry cooking show.
The University’s student-run theatre group Rude Mechanicals is preparing to bring Nina Raine’s “Tribes” to the Mendelssohn Theatre. The contemporary play centers on the experience of Billy, a deaf man who has grown up integrated into a chatty British-Jewish family. When he meets Sylvia, a woman who grew up in a deaf family and is slowly going deaf herself, he must grapple with the complexity of his identity and the tribes to which he belongs.
Alongside the quick-witted and crude family banter, “Tribes” illuminates the harsh realities of a group divide between the deaf and hearing communities.
“What is my motivation for being in this tribe if I’m in it?” Strasser asked the cast members. “Almost every single time it comes down to survivability — what increases my chances to survive … it comes down to, is my tribe going to help me survive?”
SMTD senior Blair Prince, an acting major who plays Sylvia, spoke on the diverse nature of preparation.
“Every day is a new surprise,” Prince said. “What I love about this process is that we have different ways to approach each scene, each moment … sometimes we do really physical exploration, like we might take out the text and walk through it and expand it, making it as big as possible or we might do something where we sit down and talk about the text and really get in depth.”
Throughout the process, Prince and the cast members’ exercises have ranged from the intense to the absurd, but they have never stopped being helpful.
“There was one time where we did a scene as a soap opera. It’s a very dramatic moment in the show, so to do it as a soap opera was just out of this world, but it’s just one of those things where you’re not watching yourself anymore, you’re just in it,” Prince said.
During rehearsal, the actors engage in a physical warm-up, where they recite tongue twisters at various speeds to work on diction as they move through the space. The exercise evolves into an impromptu game of tag, where the cast is unafraid to jump over each other, shriek, laugh or slide to the ground.
The cast has also been working with American Sign Language Coach Erica Watson in preparation.
“(Learning sign) has been really fun. It feels empowering. It’s another form of communication that is so visual,” Prince said. “It opens up those faculties — like how do I use my face to ask a question or to say that I’m angry?”
Of her character Sylvia, Prince said “she’s kind of having this surreal, very awakening experience where she is losing part of her identity, so it can be scary … she’s experiencing the question of what’s next.”
Sylvia is not the only character who experiences an awakening in “Tribes.”
“I wrote in my director’s note that I believe that Billy was dead until he met Sylvia,” Strasses said, “because she was his access to the group of people that helped him flourish.”
Amid themes of loss and pain that characterize those who live in limbo between communities, the Rude Mechanicals illuminate the identities of characters who have lived lives in the dark and, in finding each other, open the clear channels of communication that both human beings and quality theater require.
“Tribes” will play at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on Friday, Nov. 6 at 6:00 p.m.