Show reaches deaf and hearing alike

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Expressed entirely in ASL, Rathskellar has returned after a three-year hiatus.

In 1998, John Kovacs realized his dream of showcasing the beauty of American Sign Language through performance with the premiere of “Rathskellar,” a song- and dance-filled show.

“I’ve always had the burning desire to explore and express American Sign Language through arts, using visual and vibrant senses,” Kovacs, “Rathskellar” founder and performer, said in a written response.

The performance – which was conceived, performed and produced by an entirely deaf cast and crew – has re-energized deaf performance by incorporating the use of music with a lot of bass.

The audience feels the vibrations from the music and can tap their toes along with the show.

“Rathskellar” is one of the few shows expressed entirely in ASL without the audience having to rely on an interpreter.

The cast’s first performance was met with enough critical acclaim that it was able to tour nationally and internationally.

The performers dropped the curtain on the show in 2004, but were met with a demand from audiences to return.

After a three-year hiatus, “Rathskellar” returned to the stage, with a tour stop last weekend at the St. Paul Student Center before several packed theater audiences and enthusiastic crowds.

“It opens up the artistic mind in all of us on how we can expand and express ASL and deliver it onstage,” Kovacs said. The group took its name from a pub at the country’s only college for the deaf, Gallaudet University, which Kovacs called a gathering place for creative spirits to bounce ideas off each other in the 1970s.

Kovacs was joined onstage by fellow performers Jessica Kay vonGarrel, Emily Jo Noschese Andres Otalora and Amanda Sortwell.

” ‘Rathskellar’ is a combination of art and culture,” VonGarrel said through an interpreter.

Angela Kuehn and Denice Brudwick, two deaf audience members (through an interpreter), said they both greatly enjoyed the show.

“Deaf people in general are more expressive, and this kind of expression reaches people,” Kuehn said.

Brudwick said she really enjoyed the inclusion of music in the show.

“In the past, shows have not used much music. This one incorporated music,” she said. “Some have just music, others have just signing; this one had both.”

The inclusion of music is an important aspect of the show, Kovacs said.

” ‘Rathskellar’ has opened a lot of people’s eyes to what music means to us and how it should be used, opposed to just interpreting the songs,” he said.

“Rathskellar” functions in segments as Kovacs jumps into various television programs, becoming a part of their different scenarios.

One channel takes him to the 1950s, where he finds himself working at a diner and hanging out with a few “Uptown Girls.”

In the next scene, Kovacs is in the Caribbean fighting with swashbuckling women who “just want to have fun” and keep the coveted treasure for themselves.

Other scenes include the “Wild Wild West” and a horror movie overrun with puppets that have come to life.

Through music, dance, ASL and narrative, “Rathskellar” reaches the deaf and hearing alike.

“We put everything together in hopes of making a bigger impact,” Noschese said through an interpreter.

Sociology senior Ben Anfinson and psychology senior Rita Weiss came to the performance as an assignment for their ASL class and said they didn’t know what to expect.

“Their ability is amazing,” Weiss said. “The show was excellent.”

Anfinson said he was impressed with the performers’ ability to dance and feel the beats of the music.

“The irony in it is that they use music, but they can’t hear it,” he said. “They felt the beats, and danced to the beats. It was very impressive and creative.”

Kovacs said his favorite part of “Rathskellar,” which will continue touring the country through July, is the performers’ ability to connect with the audience.

“Their eyes glow when they discover the truth about being able to soar as a deaf person,” he said.