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Stage Review: 'Sleepy Hollow' just as scary in deaf production

Thursday, November 18, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Headless Horseman rode again in a rare bilingual performance that attracted hundreds of hearing and deaf students to Heinz Hall. The National Theatre of the Deaf's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was performed yesterday in American Sign Language and also vocalized by the company's two speaking actors.

Throughout its 32-year history, the National Theatre of the Deaf has avoided "shadowing," in which a translator interprets from a position behind a signer. Instead, the cast's hearing actors sign and voice their roles, and also recite the lines being signed by their non-hearing colleagues.

Director Kent Paul said that the company had never been reviewed by a critic who could evaluate the theatricality of the signing. So the Post-Gazette recruited Chuck Aber, a Pittsburgh actor recognized worldwide for his role as Neighbor Aber on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Aber doesn't perform in sign; he learned the language to communicate with a deaf childhood friend.

Washington Irving's 19th-century classic was slightly altered to fit the company's mission. Awkward schoolmaster Ichabod Crane still vies for the affections of young Katrina van Tassel and fears evil things, but original words that indicate sounds have been removed from the script.

"The story is told very well," said Aber. "It almost becomes mime in that it's so dramatic. The signing is embellished so you can see what they're trying to describe."

When lanky, non-hearing Bryan Buckey as Ichabod lectures to his class on the evils of coveting, he describes it as an apple that is being eaten from the inside by a worm.

"[Buckey] gives the sign for apple," said Aber. "Then he wiggles one finger like a worm, then all of his fingers inside the apple, showing that it's rotten. Later on, a student accuses Ichabod of coveting, signing it in the same way but with sarcasm on his face. That was very good. It could have been signed in several ways, but doing it like that really implied the sarcasm."

The choreography seemed askew once, said Aber, when Kalen Feeney as Katrina appeared to hesitate and glanced to read the lips of voicing actress Meredith Sause, apparently to see where they were in the script.

"But Ichabod's ride home through Sleepy Hollow was just fantastic," said Aber. "When he gets scared, he's bouncing all over and loses his hat and you can just feel the terror in him."

At the end of the hourlong performance, the audience raised their hands and wiggled their fingers -- the sign for applause.

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