Nature of the Beast

at the Blue Rider Theatre

I sometimes forget the spectrum of language possible in a theatrical production. Fittingly, the show that reminded me of the varied possibilities for story telling was performed using a mixture of spoken English and American Sign Language. A new company, Nature of the Beast, has told an old tale in a challenging, enlightening new way.

Founded by director Amy Eaton and actors Peter Cook and Marjorie Tanzar, Nature of the Beast is dedicated to producing shows with a strong physical emphasis, accessible to both hearing and hearing-impaired audiences. (Cook–seen in La Barraca ’90’s terrific The Sleep Walker’s Ballad last year–is deaf, and Tanzar is the daughter of deaf parents.) Their adaptation fuses several versions of the Medea tale, brought together in a script that includes outlined sections the actors improvise, both verbally and physically. Weary of the traditional simultaneous translation of signed dialogue by a side-stage interpreter, Eaton also provides a full synopsis in the program to allow for sequences performed only in ASL. This is a unique spin on the myth, a classical tale of passion and revenge, with a Medea who’s conceived as deaf.

In the myth Medea, the daughter of King Aetes, is given a thoroughly raw deal. She sacrifices everything for the love of Jason, forsaking her home and family, turning to the black arts to aid him in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and even committing fratricide for his sake. In return for her devotion, he leaves her and their children for the more desirable daughter of Creon. Then Creon, fearing for his daughter’s safety, demands that Medea be banished. Without any home or future, she resorts to the most desperate plans for retaliation.

In this recasting of the oral tradition, the prologue is performed by a chorus who both speak and use a stylized form of sign language. While one chorus member talks, Cook uses his entire body to describe the soldiers springing from Jason’s evil harvest, the golden flowing hair of Creon’s daughter, and other bold images that aren’t quite as vivid in the spoken description. When the action of the play proper begins, we see Medea (Tanzar) cursing Jason (Andy Mallinger) with impassioned gestures. The focus on the performers’ hands, which continues throughout the production, brings out what I see to be the central issue of this telling: the hand as a symbol of power. For Medea, unwanted by Jason and scorned by Creon because of her deafness, her hands are a means of communication and a source of magic, while Jason’s and Creon’s hands are tools of destruction and betrayal. When Creon (Rod Damer) arrives to deliver his command of banishment, Medea renders him powerless by insisting they communicate in sign. He then turns the tables by making his threat of death clear with a hand across his throat.

Perhaps most admirable about this production is the way Eaton communicates Medea’s suffering without becoming didactic about the plight of the deaf. Of course in the original Medea is not deaf, but here her deafness is both her strength and the circumstance that makes her an outcast. Because she is consumed by passion, she is not perfect–this fact becomes clear when she makes her final, tragic decisions in the play. It is her humanity, well played by Tanzar, that both raises her up and then condemns her. And it is clear that what frightens Jason and Creon the most is not Medea’s magic, but her ability to communicate in a way they cannot understand. Eaton adds some nice touches of humor–such as a certified interpreter for Creon, complete with blue ribbon–to keep the message from getting too heavy.

Further, Eaton uses stylized motion both subtly and to great effect. This is best displayed in the passages without speech, when the four-person chorus discourse on the nature of passion with great eloquence, creating fiery beasts that seem all too human. I do question some of Eaton’s choices, however. The onstage appearance of Medea’s children is unnecessary and creates an “aren’t they cute?” distraction from the play. Also, Jason’s final explosive plea to Medea is awkwardly staged, somewhat diminishing the impact of the production’s final moments. But the show’s strengths far exceed the minor flaws. When a company can tell a classic story well, that’s an accomplishment. But when it revises the story using a bold new language, it’s something quite special indeed.