It speaks volumes about Suspect Culture and Graeae Theater that their first collaboration should be a show about pop music: One of the actors in Dan Rebellato’s “Static” is deaf and the entire production is staged in both sign language and speech. But even though “Static” questions our prejudices about the appreciation of music by the hard of hearing, Rebellato’s play rarely rises above the level of soap opera, stretching neither the actors nor the audience nearly as far as the radical concept merits.
The juxtaposition of music and deafness is typical of these theater companies: Glasgow’s Suspect Culture has a reputation for playing with theatrical form and an interest in communication; and London’s Graeae has a history of confounding expectations about theater by people with disabilities.
The first challenge the playwright sets for himself is structural. He begins where most stories end, with a death. Unfortunately, this undermines the play’s sense of forward momentum.
Chris (Steven Webb) unexpectedly dies from a brain hemorrhage, leaving his young wife Sarah (Pauline Lockhart), possessive sister Julia (Jeni Draper) and best friend Martin (Tom Thomasson) without a central figure in their lives. Unlike a classical tragedy, however, there is no question of revenge — just some minor squabbling between wife and sister about who is the most bereaved — which gives you the uneasy feeling the story will meander without ever being resolved.
Rebellato’s solution is to borrow the form of the murder mystery. The suspicious object is not the corpse, though, but a compilation tape made by Chris before his death. During their time together, Chris and Martin were like characters from Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” pop music obsessives who grew from teenage fandom into a life devoted to the purity of vinyl, the religiosity of the perfect gig and the possibility of self-expression through copying songs onto cassette tape.
The fact that Chris made a tape for his wife wasn’t unusual except for two facts: the selection includes two songs by the same band (in violation of the arcane laws of the home taper), and the tape features some music Chris could never have heard, having lost his hearing in a highway collision some years earlier.
Sarah makes it her mission to crack the tape’s hidden meaning as if it were a message from her dead husband.
But, where Agatha Christie would have given herself a haunted house to explore, Rebellato has only a plastic box and a track listing, neither the most theatrical of props. In addition, theatergoers familiar with the visually arresting work of co-helmer Graham Eatough for Suspect Culture will be disappointed at the ordinariness of Ian Scott’s set — a series of three walkways intersected by hollowed-out speaker cabinets.
The play’s title refers to the static noise of a blank cassette, but it could have been a nod to the lack of movement in the staging. The production does, however, find a dynamic style in the physicality of sign language, which all four actors use, a contribution of Graeae’s co-helmer Jenny Sealey, who is herself partially deaf, that also recalls Eatough’s early explorations of gesture in his company’s work.
The play comes into its own in its frequently funny observations about the place of music in our lives. Never as touching as Daniel Kitson’s superb “C90,” a one-man show set in a library of discarded compilation tapes, it nonetheless captures something of pop music’s power to feed the imagination and define the moment.
The image of Chris, deprived of his hearing, writing reviews of perfect gigs that could never have happened stands as a haunting symbol of music’s ability to transcend barriers. “Music isn’t just music,” says Martin. “Music is also everything else.”