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Saskatchewan-born actor Dawn Jani Birley, second right, plays Horatio in Prince Hamlet during a dress rehearsal at The Theatre Centre in Toronto. Birley, who is deaf, features as the story teller in the play, which is a joint English-language and American Sign Language production.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Normally, it would be a bad thing to come out of Hamlet raving about Horatio – but director Ravi Jain's bent, bilingual production of William Shakespeare's tragedy now on in Toronto is blessedly far from "normal."

Prince Hamlet, as this Why Not production in association with Soulpepper is billed, begins where Shakespeare ended, with Horatio standing amid the bloodbath of the fencing match, beginning to tell those who just showed up what happened.

"So shall you hear of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause," he says.

Or, rather, she signs.

Horatio is played by the actor Dawn Jani Birley – a Saskatchewan-born deaf artist who has had an extensive career in Finland. Once we flash back to the start of Shakespeare's play, she remains on stage for the entire show as narrator, sometimes translating Shakespeare's lines directly into American Sign Language (ASL), sometimes speaking to all with a more universal poetic physicality.

For deaf spectators, she'll be the primary entry point to this production. But for a hearing audience member such as myself, Birley – who gives the most evocative, emotionally engaged performance here – adds a sensational second layer to the show with her gestural language.

I'll never forget her haunting retelling of Ophelia's drowning, leaning backward slightly, her hand bouncing above her mouth, creating bubbles in the air – a stream, and then a few individual ones and then nothing. This was much more chilling than Gertrude's famous retelling of the same ever is; as is so often the case, even Shakespeare's best-known scenes can reach us in surprising new ways through translation.

I walked into Prince Hamlet expecting the most notable aspect of Jain's production to be the fact that Christine Horne is playing the title role – as far as I can tell, the first female Hamlet in a major professional production in Canada.

But the casting of Horne doesn't really register as radical because the gender of the actors in this production rarely match up with the characters. Instead of two women in the show, here there are only two men in the nine-person cast; one, Rick Roberts, is playing Claudius, while the other, Jeff Ho, is playing Ophelia. Gender-blind casting, like colour-blind casting, works best when it is pervasively playful like this.

Horne's Hamlet makes a strong first impression – arriving late to the stage for the pre-show announcement. Wearing a shapeless black shirt with long sleeves she can tuck her hands into; her blond hair, wavy and at grunge-singer length, there's something of Kurt Cobain about her.

Early on and in her more upset scenes, she has a tendency to speak in a flat tone and too fast for her torrent of words to communicate much beyond numbness.

When Hamlet's mind is fully awake, however, Horne is in fine form – emotionally accessible in introspection, very funny when she dips into a kind of slacker sarcasm. This Hamlet seems petrified of sex, keeping to pecks with Ophelia – and imagining the romps between his mother, Gertrude (Karen Robinson), and uncle as a neon-pink nightmare. We see this mental image of "incestuous pleasure" at the back of the stage – before Horne unleashes an unsettling scream that leads her into "to be or not to be."

Having just seen into Hamlet's brain, we feel the deep, deep dread in his fear of "what dreams may come" after we shuffle off this mortal coil. Horne connects with and communicates this well-worn speech in a way I thought was not longer possible.

As Hamlet says when he sees the ghost of his father, "The time is out of joint" in Jain's adaptation – which sticks to Shakespeare's words, but remixes them. Designed by Lorenzo Savoini, his production on a wooden platform surrounded by piles of dirt is told as a flashback, but also contains flashbacks within flashbacks. So, for example, we cut between Ophelia's interactions with Hamlet, and her telling her father, Claudius and Gertrude about them – Andre du Toit's lighting making all of this crystal clear.

The effect of this is twofold. On the problematic side, it can make the show feel as though it is taking place in the past tense, which is compellingly fatalistic in certain moments, but merely flaccid in others. (Thomas Ryder Payne's unwavering underscoring doesn't help – imposing an unfortunate stamp of sameness to the tone.)

Thematically, however, this new structure draws your attention to how much of Hamlet is about silences and secrets – and how much is the action really is people tattling or telling.

It struck me here that Hamlet's journey is from making Horatio swear to "never make known what you have seen tonight" to him making his best friend promise to "tell my story." The question of whether to trust what you see or what you hear is omnipresent even as the dual ASL and English tracks of the show deconstruct the very dichotomy of hearing versus seeing, what it is to be an audience (one who hears) versus a spectator (one who sees).

There are some wonderful secondary performances – to single out only two: Maria Vacratsis's short and short-tempered Polonius is an officious lackey who sits halfway between White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Melissa McCarthy's popular parody of him; and Hannah Miller stands out staying in the background sharply drawing a variety of smaller roles including Guildenstern and the Player Queen.

Prince Hamlet ( continues to April 29 at the Theatre Centre

Dawn Jani Birley plays both Horatio and the narrator in a version of “Hamlet” also told through sign language. Birley says she was honest with “Prince Hamlet” director Ravi Jain, who had never worked with a deaf actor before.

The Canadian Press