Monday, March 28, 2011

Sign Language As Art:The Charming Biography of Liysa Callsen

Callsens CODADIVA is a refreshingly original trip to the theatre.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Seeing 120 live shows a year makes it very difficult to have a truly novel experience at the theatre. The truly offbeat, truly original stuff can be exceedingly hard to come by. And while Iím really fond of the experimental, I know itís not for everyone. For instance, I think playwright Peter J. Woodsí best stuff is absolutely brilliant. My wife hates it though . . . and I can understand why. Liysa Callsenís two-person oneówoman show Codadiva is a truly rare experience at the theatreóone that is both completely original and completely accessible.

Walking into the first of Liysa Callsenís two performances of Codadiva at the Vox Box, I knew I was in for something different. It appeared to me as though I was the only person in the room unable to speak sign language. The odd thing about being in a studio theatre prior to a show with a room full of people speaking in sign language was that one can still that standard, pre-show murmur. (Somethings are evidently universal.)

A Child Of Deaf Adults, Callsenís monologue is delivered almost entirely in sign language. Fellow CODA Catherine Siudzinski interprets the signs for those of us not familiar with the language. Being someone from outside the culture of the hearing impaired, I had only really been familiar with sign language from watching interpreters. With a sign interpreteróor any other kind of interpreter for that matteróthe emphasis seems to be on the basics of getting the message across in simple translation.

Itís a different experience altogether to see a deaf person actually communicating in casual conversation. Thereís more emotionómore personal flair in communication. I recall seeing a pair of deaf people argue on a Milwaukee County bus some time ago. It was fascinating . . . but what Callsenís doing here elevates that kind of personal, emotional expression through sign language to kind of a graceful art form. Callsenís signing here is beautiful and deeply expressive. Thereís a strong element of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin here--Callsenís sense of the comic come across in strikingly vivid detail. Itís a sense of humor that can swiftly change gears into the deeper end of human emotion.

In the course of the show, Callsen is relating what itís like to be caught between three different culturesóthat of the hearing world, that of the deaf world and that of the CODA world. Delivered almost entirely in sign language, the Codadiva exposes the rest of us to two cultures that arenít very visible to the rest of the culture as a whole.

The biography that Callsen is delivering here is really interesting. If itís lacking anything, itís a bigger, more thematically cohesive overall composition. Codadiva consists of many smaller narratives that fit into the larger history of Callsenís life and the life of her parents. While the roughly chronological re-telling of the past makes a simple kind of sense, Callsen presents the stories without much embellishment or analysisóitís a presentation style that allows the audience its own reaction, which is admirable, but the stories would feel that much more captivating if they were woven a bit more elaborately into a single narrative framework. Callsenís visual expression is irresistibly charming. Given just the right attention to blending that performance into a more cohesive narrative format would make Codadiva that much more powerful. As it stands even without a brilliant overall sense of composition, Liysa Callsenís Codadiva is a refreshingly unique kind of stage performance in an intimate studio theatre environment.

Liysa Callsenís Codadiva runs for one more performance at Lisa Goldaís studio The Vox Box in the Marian Center for Non-Profits. The April 2nd show starts at 7pm. For reservations, visit Callsenís Codadiva site.

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