My first thoughts about Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of Dan Rebellato’s Static involved the technical aspects of the show. How many sound cues this rock’n’roll drenched play must have, for example. And then after a bit, a bit of wonderment at how adept the four actors in Static had become at American Sign Language, signing and talking, sometimes at the same time and sometimes not. How did they keep all that straight?
So, right, my response began in admiration, but then it morphed to something else—affection. A lot of that was technical, too, I suppose. The craft of Reballato’s play, director Scott Yarbrough’s integration of its elements, including Kaye Blankenship’s stunning abstract set and Jennifer Lin’s deft lighting design, and the skill of the actors. But if there’s magic in theater, it happens when skill turns into something deeper. That happened to me during the Sunday matinee of Static.
Rebellato is a London playwright and academic (he is the theater department chair at Royal Holloway, University of London), and he writes for the Guardian’s theater blog. He developed Static in collaboration with Graeae, a company that champions experiences and opportunities for deaf and disabled audiences and practitioners, according to director Yarbrough, so signing was fully integrated into the show. Rebellato gave Third Rail permission to craft how signing and spoken language were balanced and presented in this production, but it had “to honor a primary goal of the play: that all members of the audience would not have access to all the information communicated in the play,” Yarbrough said.
Static, then, as the title implies, is a play at least partly about communication or the lack thereof, how we try to translate the enigmatic messages we receive, solve the problems they pose. At the heart of the play is a mixed tape discovered among Chris’s possessions soon after Chris has died, addressed to his wife Sarah, a pretty random compilation of songs dating back to the ’60s, some ridiculous and some sublime, with no apparent unifying theme or point. How can she and Chris’s rock journalist buddy Martin make sense of it? It even includes country songs, for crying out loud, and Chris was no fan of country.Even after Martin has given up on the project, Sarah continues with it, a testament to how deeply she loved Chris, maybe, to make sense of this last “message.” So where does the sign language come in? Well, Chris had become deaf after a car accident, though his love of rock music abided. Chris was deaf when he compiled the tape (and it IS a tape: Chris and Martin are confirmed anti-digital guys), and we see him in frequent flashbacks that go back before he became deaf as well as inhabiting his new state, which he adjusted to quite well, it turns out.
In her deep grief, Sarah focuses on the static left at the end of the tape. Can you hear that? Isn’t he saying something? The static, like a cloud, must contain signs she can decipher. Martin, dubious, brings over a bunch of recording gear so she can examine the tape more minutely. She senses Chris in the tape, feels him near her. Which actually makes sense to us in the audience, because we see him, too, hovering around Sarah and Martin, and then in the flashbacks. The other character in the play, Chris’s sister Julia, is so distraught she can’t hear anything, doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and seems to be determined to evict Sarah from her apartment. Yes, Static is about grief, too.
Is it also about the supernatural? How seriously are we supposed to take the specter of Chris? I guess I choose to make this ghost a symbol—of decoding the message, of understanding.
At the beginning, I used the word “affection.” And this comes from the characters and the actors animating them. Rolland Walsh makes an irrepressible, even madcap Chris, the sort of fellow who injects every situation and conversation with life and surprise. Maureen Porter plunges into Sarah’s sadness and then her determination to complete the translation of what she believes are Chris’s last words with equal commitment and good heartedness. Sam Dinkowitz’s Martin manages to be more than a sidekick for rockstar Chris, more amiable and concerned on one hand and then more adamant in his rants about rock, and because rock to this crew is everything, life itself. Julia as a character is harder to take, primarily because we don’t see her attempts to accommodate to the loss of a beloved brother, but Kelly Godell convinces us of just how corrosive her grief must be.
Through the flashbacks, through the signed sequences without verbal translation, through the static (sometimes closer to white noise), the actors pull us along, maybe because we are confident that they (and the playwright) are searching for something we all search for. Consolation. Understanding. The good memories. I never felt that Static was going to drop me on my head, so I was fine with not knowing everything that was going on or being said, a common condition in life, after all. No, make that a constant condition in life.
Finally, although my own taste in music has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, I loved the pop songs that infuse Static with energy and vitality and, yes, meaning. We do tend to think that certain songs weren’t written exactly for us for exactly this moment or we try to squeeze some additional significance out of a song we like. It just so happens that Third Rail has compiled a YouTube set of the songs in Chris’s compilation tape, so you can give a listen if you like. Lots of other songs pop up during the play; many I knew, and the rest I was happy to hear.
And the inherent contradiction in Static, a play so set on communicating with deaf audiences that contains so much music, is resolved in the same way that Walsh, the deaf rock critic, solves it—with energy and passion.
SPOILER ALERT: In my favorite moment of Static, the “ghost” of Chris encounters Sarah’s audio equipment, which includes a big microphone. As I said, she was desperate to hear what she thought Chris was telling her in that last tape. Chris approaches the microphone…and starts signing “into” it. Just the perfect gesture on so many levels.