This year’s Getty Villa outdoor fall production is an intriguing twist on the ancient Greek story of “Oedipus.” A collaboration with Deaf West Theatre, this version of Sophocles’ spare but devastating play involves deaf actors delivering lines in American Sign Language (ASL) with spoken and written translations.
Due to the physical nature of signing and expressive delivery by the actors, this story of a king whose fate may be worse than death feels raw and visceral—offering a passionate take on a classic tragedy.
Russell Harvard immerses himself in the role of Oedipus, convincingly conveying emotions ranging from initial concern and resolve to later anger and anguish. The citizens of Thebes have come to him as their king—a title he earned years before when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx—to now rid the city of a deadly plague.
Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon (Jon Wolfe Nelson) to the Oracle at Delphi to learn the plague’s cause. Creon reports that the pestilence is punishment for Thebes harboring the murderer of Laius, the previous king and former husband to Queen Jocasta (Alexandria Wailes)—who is now married to Oedipus and mother of his children.
Oedipus makes himself a detective in publicly vowing to identify and cast out the culprit who had committed the cold-case murder. But wait, there’s more, Creon says, though perhaps we should go inside: the Oracle has specifically implicated Oedipus as the one responsible for Laius’s death.
So begins Oedipus’s journey of self-discovery, which, like so much truth, is not pretty. Through searching his memory and exploring familial rumors and hearsay—with obscure witnesses called in and cross-examined—Oedipus painstakingly peels back layers of reality like an onion, eventually arriving at its blindingly bitter core.
With Harvard signing Oedipus’s dialogue, except for occasional vocal outbursts—most notably the defensive declaration, “I am who I am”—Oedipus’s impassioned feelings are conveyed through Harvard’s body language and facial expression, both of which are intensely attuned to the dialogue. Vocally translating his words in an expressive way for hearing audiences is Oedipus’s advisor, played by Matthew Jaeger.
Wailes as Jocasta brings similar emotional investment, creating a nuanced performance through signing, natural movement and emotive facial expression as Jocasta helps Oedipus uncover the truth of his birth and face its disastrous consequences.
Nelson as Creon—mostly speaking though sometimes signing his lines—adds lightness, embodying his character’s privileged place of enjoying the benefits of royalty without the responsibility of ruling. That is his main argument when Oedipus vehemently accuses Creon of being the murderer and trying to pin it on him.
And Ashlea Hayes is wonderfully cast as the blind seer Tiresias—here a young woman instead of an old man, unwaveringly strong enough in herself that she can speak the truth even against Oedipus’s vitriolic denials.
Tiresias’s blindness adds another physical dimension to the communication as Hayes signs and a servant—played passionately by Amelia Hensley—spells Oedipus’s responses on her hands along with other touch-based protractile language techniques. That dialogue is also vocally translated for hearing audiences with feeling by Jaeger and equally clearly and expressively by chorus cast member On Shiu.
The full chorus of seven cast members play the witnessing citizens of Thebes and other minor roles. The chorus also sometimes performs circular choreography (by Jonaz McMillan, with music and sound by Peter Bayne) while slowly signing in unison, such as a ritualistic appeal to the gods for help from the plague early in the play.
However, the chorus’s choreographed gestures are not translated either vocally or on a screen above the stage showing occasional supertitles. While the general purpose of their movement is clear, the details are lost if you don’t know ASL, in which case it might be helpful to skim the script made available in the program and watch an informative ASL glossary performed by cast members.
Deaf West Theatre’s Jenny Koons directs the players with a sure hand, having adapted “Oedipus” from an English translation of the original play by Ian Johnston, with ASL adaptation by Wailes and Andrew Morrill, who plays the chorus leader.
The set is atmospheric (designed by Tanya Orellana, with lighting by Jared A. Sayeg), featuring a series of brightly lit doorframes denoting Oedipus’s palace and video projection (by Yee Eun Nam) of the characters that reinforce emotional states. Costumes (Jojo Siu) are of modern design in black, white and gray, adding to the minimalist yet ominous feel.
Experiencing this well-known tragedy in such a unique way—whether you are deaf or hearing—is illuminating. The physical intensity of signing, especially by Oedipus and his interactions with Tiresias, reinforces the story’s human essence and heightens its emotions. We are drawn in bodily by Oedipus’s struggle, a reminder of our existential uncertainty in the hands of fate and the need to fully own who we are, however painful.
“Oedipus” continues at the Getty Villa’s outdoor theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, through Oct. 1, with shows Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets range from $40 to $48, or $36 for students and seniors. Visit Getty.edu for tickets and information. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission.