Mad Ophelia moves to center stage Theatre of the Deaf performs signed play HOWARD COUNTY DIVERSIONS

February 12, 1993|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

After appearing for more than 380 years in the shadows, one of the few female roles in "Hamlet" will perform in the spotlight tonight and tomorrow at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

"Ophelia," staged by the National Theatre of the Deaf and directed by Robby Barnett and Will Rhys, offers an intriguing derivative of the Shakespearean tragedy.

The play will be simultaneously signed and delivered in English.

The company, composed of two hearing and eight deaf actors, performs with the hearing actors speaking the lines of the play and the deaf actors signing.

Smith Theatre stresses that the play is inclusive, not exclusive, and can be appreciated by those with or without hearing.

"It's designed equally for both audiences. It's really meant for a theatrical audience from all walks of life," said Kasi Campbell, general manager of the Smith Theatre.

"Within the first 10 minutes, you forget the lines are coming from another voice. It's an incredibly difficult type of theater to do."

Ms. Campbell said that one of the reasons for bringing the deaf company to the Smith Theatre is to cultivate a deaf audience, currently eight to 10 patrons who attend every dramatic production.

For previous performances, the theater provided a signer from the Centralized Interpreter Referral Service of the Hearing and Speech Agency in Baltimore to sign the play with a measure of animation.

The hearing-impaired patrons would attend a designated performance and cluster in the same area of the theater so that they could see the interpreter.

This time, the hearing-impaired may sit wherever they want.

The National Theatre of the Deaf began its 16-state tour last fall and has performed "Ophelia" in St. Louis, Hartford, Conn., and San Francisco, drawing positive reviews.

"Ophelia" was written by Jeff Wanshel specifically for the National Theatre of the Deaf.

Despite Mr. Wanshel's declaration in a synopsis, "Text pirated from William Shakespeare," the play's respect for the original playwright is "very sincere," Ms. Campbell said.

"And it does interject some humorous scenes," she said. "It's very attuned to Shakespeare, but also attuned to the feminist."

The theme of Ophelia's attempts to control her own life recurs throughout the play.

The difference between "Ophelia" and "Hamlet" begins with the title.

Shakespeare's obedient and fragile Ophelia has become a central character involved in more of the drama.

In Mr. Wanshel's play, she's not dead by Act IV, drowned in a brook after going insane.

This is not the same person Polonius called "a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance."

She is more determined, self-assured and contemporary.

She also gets better lines -- at the expense of Horatio and Hamlet himself, including his famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be."

Ophelia fills in for Horatio in two of his key scenes: first, when Hamlet's father appears as an apparition, and in the final scene, when Hamlet and Laertes fence.

The play has a layered structure, with the action of the original play -- apart from Mr. Wanshel's character substitutions -- interrupted by commentary from a performing troupe, giving "Ophelia" an informal progression. The addition of the internal play, "The Marriage of Gonzaga," a staple of "Hamlet," gives "Ophelia" a three-tier effect.

"It's like a play, within a play, within a play," said Ms. Campbell.

It's best to arrive before the curtain goes up, because much of this framework is established in the first scene.

Like "Hamlet," "Ophelia" keeps to a high number of murders.

With an interesting exception, the playwright remained loyal to Shakespeare's zest for blood.

A clever twist closes the play, giving it a circular quality.

"Ophelia" should be of interest to all theater patrons, not just in its interpretation of England's best playwright but in its method to deliver the message through the aural and visual.

The National Theatre of the Deaf presents "Ophelia" at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. Tickets are $12 and $10 with a $2 discount for students and senior citizens. The theater is equipped with a wireless FM hearing system for the hearing-impaired. This production received support from the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, the Howard County Arts Council, the Maryland State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Information: 964-4900 or TDD 992-4883.

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