80 years ago, the story of the Papin sisters took France by storm. They were white slaves to an upper class family, and it drove them to murder. Playwright Wendy Kesselman wrote “My Sister in This House,” a play based on the sisters’ story, in 1982. Now, with the help of director Michael Unger, she has adapted the script for a non-hearing audience at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. KPCC’s Steve Julian met with Unger, the deaf actresses, and their speaking counterparts. COME INSIDE for details and a transcript of Steve's story.
THE DEAF WEST PRODUCTION OF "MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE" STARS TWO DEAF ACTRESSES, DEANNE BRAY AND AMBER ZION. THEY PORTRAY CHRISTINE AND LEA PAPIN.
ONSTAGE, THEY USE SIGN LANGUAGE TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH MANY IN THE AUDIENCE. FOR THOSE WHO HEAR, THEIR WORDS ARE SPOKEN BY ACTRESSES DARRIN REVITZ AND LINDSAY EVANS.
IT SOUNDS A LITTLE COMPLICATED BUT, TRUST ME, AFTER SEEING DEAF WEST’S PRODUCTION OF “PIPPIN” LAST YEAR AT THE MARK TAPER FORUM, IT ALL MAKES SENSE.
FOR OUR INTERVIEW, I WAS JOINED BY ELIZABETH GREENE WHO TRANSLATED FOR AMBER, WHO PLAYS LEA, AND DEANNE, WHO PLAYS CHRISTINE.
EG: [Interpreting for Christine] It’s clear that Christine believed that, in a past life, she was Lea’s husband.
SJ: Christine and Lea were believed to have become lovers while in their twenties.
EG: [Interpreting for Christine] They were very, very close, but if they were lovers, it was in an innocent fashion.
SJ: When they were working as maids for the Lancelins in Le Mans, France, Christine and Lea were not allowed to converse with the residents, leave the house, or even use the bathroom – they had to use a bucket. Until one day...
EG: [Interpreting for Christine] We exchanged instruments with each other. I did exchange a hammer and other instruments with my sister, and we washed all of the blood off of ourselves. And then, when we came back, we put on our nightgowns and sat in bed, waiting for authorities to arrive.
SJ: They had brutally killed Madam Lancelin and her young daughter. I asked Amber if she could relate to the sense of isolation her character must have felt.
EG: [Interpreting for Lea] Yes, I can relate to it because, growing up deaf, I had a lot of oppression, myself, so I do feel a connection with Lea.
SJ: I could only imagine the interplay between the deaf and speaking actresses – whether either Lindsay or Darrin ever felt they were interpreting as opposed to acting?
DR: No! Because what they’re doing is almost like (EG: No, no, no! laughter) … because what they’re doing—
EG: Christine wants to add input… Christine’s saying, when it comes time for Amber, who plays the character of Lea, myself, to have emotion or to cry, they are sitting in their chairs, our voice actors, with wet tears rolling down their faces. They are doing the crying, the real crying as much as we are. And when that actually happened in rehearsal, Christine says, director Michael Unger spoke up. He said, I don’t see four women. I see two women. [pause]
SJ: Darrin Revitz…
DR: But I do get intimidated sometimes and I don’t know sign language, so it’s hard to communicate, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, for lack of a better word, what is my ignorance of their language.
SJ: Director Michael Unger demands a level playing field for hearing and non-hearing audiences. He discovered during previews, for example, that deaf audience members didn’t realize the women were screaming during blackouts. Elizabeth, speaking for Christine, explained…
EG: What they’ve added is some reverberation beneath the seats, plus flashbulbs, a flashbulb approach, of technical lighting. And at the same time the flashbulb goes off, the audience feels a rumbling, so there were moments that had to be shifted and adjusted to make the moment equitable for all.
DR: These worlds are not equal. He wanted the hearing audience to be out of their element for a portion of the show and the deaf audience to be out of their element for a portion of the show, which I think mirrors what you’re seeing on stage in that it’s not a parallel world.
SJ: “My Sister in This House” runs through May 20 at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. My thanks to Elizabeth Greene for interpreting the comments of deaf actresses Deanne Bray and Amber Zion. The double murders in 1933 also prompted French writer Jean Genet to write the play “The Maids.” It opens April 29 at The Moth Theatre in Los Angeles. We’ll have all those details at kpcc.org, click on Offramp. For Offram, I’m Steve Julian.