Tina Steele was an adolescent dancer bent on a career in ballet when she realized her maturing body wasn’t going to cooperate with her plans. “For a while I would bind myself,” she says, “but once you get hips and a chest, your balance points fail.” She hung up her point shoes and decided to pursue acting, though she never lost interest in dance. A few years later her life took a fateful turn and she was introduced to a third discipline.

On a backpacking tour of the UK, during a break from her undergraduate studies at DePaul, Steele caught a small traveling puppet troupe performing in a park in Birmingham, England. “I liked them, and since I was a free spirit at that time, I decided to hook myself up with them.”

She hit the road with the troupe–“We played a lot of the industrial cities in northern England, Birmingham, York, Yardley; I swept up a lot”–learning the tricks of the trade.

The company would set up in a park, then decide what show they would perform, for kids or adults, depending on what kind of audience they attracted. “They had a trunk full of material, props, costumes, Punch and Judy puppets, and the like, and they’d pull out whatever they thought would go over. Working with them I realized what an amazing tool puppetry is. Incredibly visual. You can get across spiritual, political, sexual points. “When I came back to the U.S., I knew I wanted to learn more about puppetry.”

Back in Chicago Steele hooked up with Hystopolis Puppet Theatre and worked with them for more than a year before striking out on her own.

In 1989, she and director Scott Anenberg teamed up to form a company that would incorporate all three of the art forms Steele had come to love: choreography, live acting, and puppetry. Steele Productions’ first show, Feast, was a glorious failure. Glorious because Steele’s hybrid technique was breathtaking. For the show, essentially a comedy revue, she created a collection of grotesque rod-controlled puppets, the most striking of which was a crucified Christ complete with long flapping arms. Unfortunately, the material in the show–written by Steele and her cast–rarely rose to the level of the technique.

The pair’s next attempt was an autobiographical work exploring Steele’s Catholic upbringing, first called Games to Play at Church and later rewritten and performed late night at the Theatre of the Reconstruction as I Survived St. Jude’s and All I Got Was This Plaid Skirt. Some found the script, which contained frank discussions of the sexual abuse of children by priests, disturbing. Others complained that Steele didn’t go far enough, that she was just rehashing old familiar complaints about the church. “Some people were offended,” Steele says, but, she adds in a low tone, “That was the point.” Then she laughs.

By Steele’s own admission, this piece too was somewhat weak in the text department. “The fact is,” she frankly admits, “none of us really know how to write well.”

In each show, however, there have been brief flashes of inspiration, moments when it seems that Steele’s determination to mix masks, puppets, and choreography might really lead her somewhere interesting.

But it wasn’t until Anenberg and Steele began working on their current production, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, that they found a theatrical form that really suited them. Using Gilbert Murray’s classic (if a bit stuffy) translation as a jumping-off point, Anenberg (who directs) and Steele (who does everything else) have created a show in which the ever-changing stage picture tells as much of Euripides’ story of betrayal and revenge as Murray’s lofty 19th-century prose.

The role of Medea is a natural for the aggressive Steele, and her ability to ride Medea’s roller coaster of emotions provides much of the power in the piece. Ironically, Anenberg had to twist Steele’s arm to get her to take the role, and it’s clear she has much more invested in the masks and puppets she built for the show, and in her choreography for the chorus, than in her performance.

She has built a pair of white, sickly looking puppets to represent the two sons Jason and Medea argue over in the play. One look at these two, with their haunted, staring black eyes ringed by semicircles of gray, and you know they’re the products of a wildly dysfunctional family. They are literally and figuratively mere puppets in the larger drama.

“I used puppets this way once before,” Steele explains. “In Sliced Bread’s production of Richard III. The two young princes who are murdered were played by puppets. They were very effective because they had interchangeable body parts. First, they had these beautiful little faces, and later, when a new head was put on, they had ripped-up, gouged-out eyes. I was thinking of doing that in Medea, but Shakespeare’s different. In Shakespeare it’s–plop!–here it is! In Greek drama, everything’s hidden. I didn’t want to break that convention.”

Following another convention of Greek drama, all of the members of the chorus wear masks, although unlike the stiff-spined choruses of more academic productions, they have also been given an intricate series of dance moves to accompany the often long choral speeches.

“All the men in the chorus will be bare-chested,” says Steele. “Because I love the physicality, I love the sexuality, of bare-chested men and because that way their movement is more pronounced. The simplest realignment of the spine is visible.”

What makes this choreography all the more intriguing is that Steele and Anenberg have, in casting the show, given preference to nondancers. As Steele takes pains to point out, “I rarely use dancers because I don’t want beautiful bodies. What I look for are real angular, live people. I like to take acting and shift it, put it in the body.”

Steele’s unconventional company is both more graceful than your average Greek chorus and more articulate than your average ballet corps.

Steele Productions’ Medea will be performed at the Curious Theatre Branch, 1900 W. North Ave., tonight at 8 and next Friday, August 28, at 10. It’s part of the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, which means that single admission is $7 but discounts are available for multiple tickets. See the Reader’s Guide to Theater in section two or call 235-1944 for more information on the festival. Steele Productions can be reached at 989-7767.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Luthringer.