Deaf Theatre West Presents a Profound ‘Oedipus’ at Getty Villa

Russell Harvard as Oedipus.
Photo: Craig Schwartz



Circling the News Contributor

The city is filled with cries of pain. The hearing audience can only “feel” the mood, while the deaf in attendance “hear” the citizens’ lamentation. Blight is on the land; crops wither, women are childless, and the plague has emptied out Thebes.

So begins the Deaf West Theatre’s bilingual production in American Sign Language (ASL) of Sophocles’ “Oedipus” on stage at the Getty Villa.

Under the guidance of hearing director Jenny Koons, the inevitable tragedy is conveyed through what Koons calls the “visual vernacular.”

The production features hearing and deaf actors, assuring comprehension for all attendees. Koons has developed the poetry of the gestural language, adding another dimension to the action. The actors’ signing is vocalized at the same time, but ASL also incorporates the whole body, most effectively applied to the rhythmic dance of the Greek chorus.

The story unfolds slowly, with King Oedipus learning from the god Apollo that to rid the “pollution” from the land, the murder of Oedipus’ predecessor, King Laius, must be avenged.

In his promise to his people, to his city and to himself, Oedipus seeks more information and summons Teiresias, an old blind prophet to seek out the murderer. The reluctant seer is forced to reveal the buried truth of the tragedy.

Deafblind actor Ashlea Hayes’ Teiresias navigates the action by relying on her interpreter, who signs into her open hand, and by an emerging technology called Protactile. A Protactile interpreter stands by Hayes using a variety of taps on Hayes’ shoulders and back to convey supplemental information. DWT Artistic Director DJ Kurs explains, “Gentle taps convey when other people are nodding, while a finger rolled on the back means someone entered the room in that direction, and so on.”

As Oedipus (Russell Harvard) rebels against the wisdom of the truth, his fear directs rash accusations of treachery against his brother, Creon, and Teiresias. But, as we all know, the prophecy will be fulfilled.

The foreboding mood of the play is visually amplified with intermittent projections on the façade of the Villa museum that serves as backdrop. There might be an inchoate swirl of cloud-like images conveying the chorus’ commentary, or a projection of Oedipus’ face that displays his doubt and anguish.

Lighting, music, dance, and the power of silent communication come together in this profoundly tragic epic. And the powerful performance with both deaf and hearing actors demonstrates the importance of these two communities coming together to make art.

“Oedipus” opens the Villa’s 16th annual outdoor theater production.

Performances continue through October 1, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Contact: or call 310-440-7300.

Ashlea Hayes as Tiresias and Amelia Hensley as Palace Servant.
Photo: Craig Schwartz



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One Response to Deaf Theatre West Presents a Profound ‘Oedipus’ at Getty Villa

  1. Neven Karlovac says:

    Hi Sue,
    A fine review by Libby, as usual. I saw the performance at the dress rehearsal. I was impressed and intrigued with ASL and I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, I must admit that I was a bit shocked at the beginning as I didn’t expect what I saw. I think that the description of the production as “bilingual” was not very helpful. For me, it was more like watching a foreign movie shot in an unknown language and with subtitles in English. In any case, certainly a worthwhile effort for the deaf-mute and enlightening for the rest of us.

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