In ‘Oedipus,’ Deaf West Theatre features Protactile ASL

MALIBU, Calif. — Language is constantly evolving. It’s also very much at the heart of a new production of “Oedipus,” an ancient tragedy that marks new territory in a number of ways. It’s the first time the Getty Villa has hosted a bilingual production in their outdoor theater. It’s the first time Deaf West Theatre has performed at the space. And it’s the first time in the Tony-winning company’s 30-year history that they have a DeafBlind actor in the cast.

Ashlea Hayes plays Tiresias, the blind oracle who is a recurring figure in Greek mythology. Around the theatre, she’s often seen with her Protactical interpreter, Erin Sanders-Sigmon, by her side.  Hayes’ peripheral vision is diminishing, she says, and Sanders-Sigmon uses physical cues to help her understand what’s happening around her.

“She’s telling me someone is smiling,” Hayes said as Sanders-Sigmon tapped on her thigh.

Protactile ASL is relatively new as far language is concerned, developed in the past 20 years by the DeafBlind community and centered around touch rather than visual communication. Hayes says often DeafBlind people and other disabled individuals are often infantilized or portrayed as helpless. It’s a stereotype she wants to shatter.

“I don’t want to be diminished and that’s often portrayed,” she said. “No independence of DeafBlind characters is ever portrayed. DeafBlind characters never get to show their autonomy. This shakes everything and I’m excited about that.”

And so is her costar Russell Harvard who portrays Oedipus. He last perfomed with Deaf West Theatre in their production of the opera “Fidelio” earlier this year. He says while hearing actors can memorize and perform their lines, he has to go one step further.

“I’m having to translate and figure out what is the English meaning, what is the signed meaning,” he said. “If one sign is lost the whole show can be really confusing.”

The show is actually being presented in several languages simultaneously. ASL, spoken English and Protactile ASL. Deaf Wests’ Artistic Director DJ Kurs says there’s a bit of a true crime element to the story, with characters having to work through these layers of language to find clues. It’s a little insight, he says, into how deaf people experience life.

“We are often finding contextual clues from our surroundings and trying to piece pieces together,” Kurs said. “So I think that is really going to resonate with our deaf audience members.”

Kurs first discussed “Oedipus” with director Jenny Koons in 2020, right as the pandemic was starting. Despite being written over two millennia ago, the play turned out to be remarkably timely.

“The story takes place during the end of a horrible plague and during a time of political turmoil,” Kurs said.

“It’s dealing with a kind of larger-than-life story in a moment we are living through that feels often really heightened, that feels larger than life,” Koons said. “We often find ourselves asking big questions which are similar to the questions they are asking in the show.”

After over 2,000 years, audiences probably know how the story ends, but the cast says no one has ever seen “Oedipus” presented like this. Both Harvard and Hayes hope the show draws a diverse audience — both deaf and hearing.

“This show is going to be eye candy for you guys when you come,” Harvard said. “Everyone will be gobsmacked.”

“Whether you are hearing, you don’t know any sign language, you’re freaked out by deaf people or you’re deaf and you’re like ‘I don’t know Protactile, how will I understand this show?’ Whatever,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you can come and see the show. It’s very accessible to you.”

Although she’s worked on camera before, playing the oracle is Hayes first professional acting job on stage. It’s something she predicts more of in the future.

“I get direct feedback from audience members and it’s fantastic,” she said. “I don’t think I could not do this again.”

“Oedipus” runs through October 1 at the Getty Villa. For information visit the Deaf West Theatre website.