Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Soot and Spit

JW Guido and Ensemble; Photo: Nina Wurtzel
Five years in the making, Our Voices' world premiere of Soot and Spit at the Ohio Theatre tells the story James Castle, a profoundly deaf man born in 1900, who makes a life of his art despite those seeking to discourage him -- redefining what it means to be disabled: something the production does as well.

Playwright Charles Mee (Obie winner, Big Love), who calls himself "an old crippled white guy" in the program notes, and Kim Weild (director and musical staging)--whose brother Jamie, deaf since birth, has also communicated through drawing--showcase diversity in both topic and casting with the lead role deftly played by deaf actor JW Guido (artistic director for New York Deaf Theatre) and two ensemble members (Karen Ashino Hara and Chris Lopes from "Orange Is the New Black") who have down syndrome. Bent over, curving his back like a Neanderthal, Guido shows Castle as stubborn and caustic, yet relentless in his drive to produce art.

The production offers a landscape view of Castle's life and uses bluegrass music (by John Hartford -- a self-taught fiddle player, with original compositions/orchestrations by Daniel Puccio), dancing and multimedia projections of Castle's artwork to give insight into his silent world. The malleable yet simple set by Matthew Imhoff transforms from Castle's home to his school to picnic grounds easily and becomes a film screen filled with written narration and 150 images (out of nearly 20,000) of Castle's artwork when needed.

Castle, who spent less than five years in school and never learned sign language, used soot from his fireplace and spit to create his art after his family was instructed by his old headmaster "to keep paper, pens, and inks away from him" and to "not to let him spend his time drawing" so he could learn to speak and sign. Mee intersperses local community moments, such as picnics and gunny sack races, amid Castle's childhood and adolescence, creating a palpable link to the artist's isolation in a world that exists around him. Unfortunately, the play lags at times -- especially during the second act where Castle's art comes alive around him -- when scenes become repetitive and difficult to understand. Ultimately, though, Mee educates us in a moving story about this almost forgotten artist whose perseverance inspires as much as his art does.

Produced by The Archive Residency, a collaboration between New Ohio Theatre and IRT Theater. 

Running time: 80 minutes. Through June 17 at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St. in NYC). Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Special ASL interpreted performances for Soot and Spit are on June 8 at 7:30pm & June 10 at 2 pm, with an autism-friendly performance on June 17 at 2 pm.
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