Tribes 7th July 2015
It’s been a while since we’ve seen such a refreshingly brutal and honest take at one of the oft forgotten groups in society: the deaf.
Written by English playwright Nina Raine and winning the 2012 Drama Desk award for Outstanding Play, Pangdemonium continues its winning streak of kick-ass theatre, with Tribes being one of their best yet. Tribes follows the tried and tested drama surrounding a dysfunctional family: Christopher (Adrian Pang) is the cantankerous linguistics professor patriarch of the family, Beth (Susan Tordoff) the struggling writer mother with a failing marriage, their children Ruth (Frances Lee) the wannabe opera singer, Daniel (Gavin Yap) the drug addict coping with the quickening onset of mental illness, and finally golden boy Billy (newcomer Thomas Pang, no relation to Adrian Pang), who is deaf, but was trained by the family to read lips and dismiss sign language.
The family is essentially crazy, characterising their interactions with vicious jibes and directionless arguments over nothing, but love each other in their own way. This all changes when Billy meets Sylvia (Ethel Yap), a girl with deaf parents who is slowly going deaf herself. She teaches him how to sign, and what follows is a drama surrounding what it feels like to be a deaf person, a non-deaf person becoming deaf, society’s treatment of the deaf, and above all, family and what it means to fit in. Tribes does all this with aplomb and fully embraces the original dysfunctional family by going all out with its family dynamics.
Tribes deals primarily with the idea of language and its interpretation, both actual and imagined, from the caustic language of love used within the main family to the actual sign language Billy learns, causing a rift in the family. The power of language and how it both divides and unites is explored throughout, and this is emphasized with the use of visuals, like the projection of the actual notes played during a piano scene onto a wall to emphasize the universality of music and the visual quality of the notes, as opposed to the sound.
A particularly powerful scene ensues when Sylvia and Billy argue in her home, conflagrating over Billy’s warped interpretation of CCTV camera conversations and Sylvia’s emotional turmoil over going from a hearing person to a deaf one, bringing up a myriad of problems with language and interpretation. That being said, Tribes is ultimately about relationships, particularly familial, and learning how to reconnect with and reach out to the oft forgotten, even if they seem to have adapted to daily life. This is one really screwed up family, and yet through it all, they come through as a whole unit. The chemistry the cast has is fantastic and despite their racial and physical differences, you truly feel that they form a slightly mismatched but wholly believable family.
In particular, Susan Tordoff and Frances Lee have some wonderful mother-daughter scenes that would warm anyone’s heart. The entire cast is stellar honestly, with some of the best lines coming from the banter between Adrian Pang and Susan Tordoff, which fluctuates between playful and acid. Of particular note as well would be Tracie Pang’s direction of newcomer Thomas Pang, who portrays the deaf Billy. Accurate but never straying into overacting territory, here’s to seeing more of Thomas in future productions to come. Pangdemonium has always been known to hire set designers to create beautiful sets, and this time is no different.
Wong Chee Wai’s interior design of the house works like a charm, and particularly clever is the decision to create a window that leads to the ‘exterior’ of the house, allowing for a glimpse into the world beyond the stage that although not integral to the plot, lends a very nice touch. The house is homely and spacious, and truly gives one a sense of protection and safety upon seeing it, which makes it hurt all the more when the central conflict ensues. This is in opposition to Sylvia’s house, which by contrast, shows up as a much smaller and claustrophobic space that completely explains the high tensions that ensue.
Pangdemonium decided to use Tribes as an opportunity to reach out and connect with the local deaf community, employing sign interpreters onstage to sign the play out live. It’s a very nice touch that, although slightly distracting, ultimately added a very interesting touch to an already powerful play about the deaf community. It’s a good reminder that plays serve the dual purpose of both entertainment and social awareness, and for Tribes, it’s a darn good example of that that ultimately left much of the theatre in tears and a warm feeling in their heart as they left that night. Kudos to Pangdemonium for yet another fantastic choice and execution of the play.