"Hands of Its Enemy' wasn't about deafness," stressed Tom Henschel (who essayed the role of the stage manager in that play.) "This is."

"This" is American Theatre Arts' American Sign Language production of Percy MacKaye's "The Scarecrow" (1910), a gentle tale incorporating deaf, hearing-impaired and hearing actors. Under the co-production of Henschel and Margaret Perry, it opens Thursday on the ATA Mainstage.

"Ordinarily, what happens to a deaf audience in a signed performance is much like a tennis match," Henschel explained. "Looking back and forth from the signers to the action, they often miss something.

"Here, we've reversed that situation. The deaf characters are the leads, while the 'voicers' (interpreting aloud for hearing audiences) support the action, coming onstage as a servant, a prop--but not as any integral part of the drama.

"The story itself," he continued, "is about a scarecrow brought back to life by a witch and the devil--basically for purposes of revenge on an old lover of the witch's. But the scarecrow falls in love with the man's daughter and longs to become human. . . .

"It's really quite magical. And we're adding a lot of special effects: the transformation of the scarecrow from vegetable and steel into a human, the devil appearing in puffs of smoke. Very visual.

"Last year, we did 'Twelfth Night' in this manner, and people said that the expression and movement onstage was like a ballet. The voices illuminate for the hearing audiences--and the deaf don't need voices, but they're there for an integrated artistic experience. Don Eitner (ATA artistic director) was very specific about serving both worlds. So that's a wonderful challenge."

Eager to meet it are National Theatre for the Deaf director Ed Waterstreet and his cast of 15, including such alums as Freda Norman, Linda Bove and Lou Fant--"an exceptionally strong corps in terms of the deaf community," Henschel enthused, "and we got 'em."

More happy news: master puppeteer Bruce D. Schwartz is back with his "Personal Effects: Encore," opening Thursday at Sherman Oaks' Whitefire Theatre .

For those who may have missed this remarkable show the last time around, Schwartz offers a series of lyrical/comic vignettes with his collection of homemade characters: hand puppets like Dame Eleanor singing of her "Rat of Huge Proportions"; rod puppets ("originally from Indonesia, filtered through Europe to me") and wheel puppets ( Kurum ningyo ), an old Japanese form in which the puppeteer is harnessed--legs, arms and head--to his puppet, matching the figure's graceful movements with his own.

Featured will be Schwartz's newest piece for the wheel puppet, "Beyond the Comfort of Heaven: Dance of Balance," employing bugaku (an ancient Japanese dance.) "It takes the traditional form out of context and into the surreal, with scenarios of water and light. . . .

"There's no dialogue, though it does have a narrative thread. And the solo character is a composite of styles: Japanese costume, Orientalist headdress, but no specific national characteristic. Really, quite eclectic."

"Nobody knows this play," sighed director Jack O'Brien of George Kelly's "The Torch Bearers" (starring Beth Howland and opening Thursday at the Old Globe in San Diego). "It's one of those pieces that theater people think they've seen or want to have seen or were supposed to have seen. . . . A lost classic--but legendary as having two of the funniest acts in American theater."

Centering on the antics of a 1922 Philadelphia amateur group putting on a show for charity, "the second act is really the genesis for 'Noises Off,' taking place backstage where everything goes wrong." O'Brien feels that the lavish attention bestowed on that recent British imitator is typical: "Traditionally, our fault in America is that we pass over our own accomplishments and go to other people's work." So he's rallied with "a refurbished, restored and polished-up 'Torch Bearers'--and as is usually the case with theater people doing a play about theater people, having a whale of a good time."

Billed as a play for older children, the Cal State Northridge production of Susan Zeder's "Step on a Crack" opens Saturday at the University's Little Theatre.

"It's a subject that hits home with what's happening with children today," observed director Christine Parrent Caton. "Ellie, a 10-year-old girl, is having a difficult time deciding whether or not to accept her new stepmother. One way she avoids the issue is by creating imaginary characters with the traits she'd like to have.

"Another character is a voice, her alter ego. It talks to her throughout the play, using reverse psychology, saying evil things about the mother. And yet this voice ultimately forces her to choose to love the stepmother, to decide that this woman is the kind of mother she'd want after all."

"By the play's end, it's not rosy, everlasting happiness," Caton noted, "but hopeful , which I think is far more wise--and real."

Three cheers for the home team: Cal State L.A.'s production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Tood" has been selected as one of the six national finalists in the American College Theatre Festival, and will open the event at the Kennedy Center in Washington April 15-16.

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