Every role in the City Light production of 'Eurydice' is played by two actors: one signing in American Sign Language, and one speaking English. Pictured: Leah Cohen, ASL, and Lauren Rhodes, English. (Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Sanders)
How do you perform a play in English and American Sign Language simultaneously? Can that work? Yes.
"I’ve always felt American Sign Language is not only a beautiful language, but it’s inherently theatrical," said Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director for City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. "I'm one of those people that, if I'm at a conference and they have an interpreter off to the side, I can't take my eyes off of the interpreter."
She says she first came up with the idea of bilingual theater in English and ASL. Then she had to find the right play to serve as a vehicle. "It was harder than I thought it was going to be."
Mallette finally fixed on playwright Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a modern retelling of the classic Greek myth. You'll recall the basic construct: Orpheus is a talented musician whose bride Eurydice is stolen away by the Lord of the Underworld. Can Orpheus get her back?
Ruhl’s 90-minute take on the story centers on Eurydice’s love for her dead father and her fear of forgetting him.
Once she’s among the dead, the threatening Lord of the Underworld more or less becomes a comic caricature, and the story instead focuses on whether Eurydice will regain her memory, lost in the river of forgetfulness (the river Styx in the original Greek myth), whose waters erase the passions that hold the dead to the living.
Somehow, Eurydice's father has retained his memory of and love for her, but will she remember her love for him? When Orpheus appears at the gates, singing her name, it's not clear whether Eurydice will follow her husband or stay below with her dad, even if it means marrying that annoying lord.
Mallette got Ruhl's permission to experiment with the play. "Sarah Ruhl's beautiful play works perfectly. It's has a lovely, poetic language already. It's almost fantastical in its presentation. There aren't a lot of props, so people's hands aren't busy. It's also not very long."
Mallette cast two actors for every major role: one to speak, one to sign. "If you see them side by side, some of the signs are lovely and kind of obvious. Of course that’s someone falling from the sky onto a fluffy cloud. It makes perfect sense."
So for instance, actor Lauren Rhodes plays Eurydice — and so does Leah Cohen. "We are actually performing simultaneously onstage while [Rhodes] is speaking," Cohen explained. "I'm signing, but I'm not just standing there looking at her, or looking out at the audience. I'm actually incorporated into the show. I interact with the speaking characters, as well as some of the other signing roles onstage."
Stephanie Foisy plays the signing Orpheus. "As a professional sign language interpreter, I’ve been interpreting for theater for years, but I’ve always been the supplement to what’s happening onstage. Getting a chance to be part of the action has been really fun," Foisy said.
A portion of the ticket sales from Eurydice goes to support the American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Program at Ohlone College.
However, not a single person in the production is deaf. Those who sign came to it out of curiosity. Cohen took an "Interpreting for Musical Theater" course at the New School in Manhattan. "I just fell in love with it."
Eurydice gives the audience the opportunity to do the same.
Eurydice runs through April 14, 2019 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For more information, click here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.