Like Greek to Me 

Theatre VCU's bilingual "Medea" incorporates sign language.

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Mary Vreeland stresses that she is someone who does not hear, not someone who cannot hear. "I believe there is great power in language," the actress says through an interpreter. "Saying somebody 'can't' do something automatically puts them at a lower status."

Issues around status and power are clearly significant to Vreeland, and she will bring all of her passion about them to bear as the title character in the Greek tragedy "Medea," opening at Theatre VCU this weekend. It is a play already rife with explosive personal and political relationships as the "barbarian" Medea is ultimately driven to kill her own children after being spurned by her Greek husband. In a challenging move designed to intensify these interactions, this production will be bilingual, with American Sign Language (ASL) used concurrently with English. Though Vreeland will be the only deaf actor onstage, the entire cast learned ASL to enable this unique structure.

There is some obvious symbolism here: A Medea who communicates only through sign language reinforces the idea that women do not have a voice in society. But VCU guest director Heather Davies says that the play addresses more general questions about a society's reaction to outsiders. "Some people are sympathetic [to Medea] but unskilled," Davies explains. "Others are skilled but unsympathetic. Working with sign language allowed me to explore all of the variations."

Davies has also incorporated drumming, original music and movement to make the production a truly eclectic mix. Vreeland, a second-year graduate student, calls her part "the role of a lifetime." After appearing in several television shows in the 1980s, she taught for more than a dozen years in Rochester, N.Y. "[This role] has such depth and breadth and width," Vreeland says. "Medea's rage is constant, and every night I have to find new ways to work through her pain."

These sound like emotions that will translate regardless of the language. S

"Medea" is playing Nov. 9-11 and 16-18 (Thursday-Saturday) at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 12 and 19 (Sunday) at 3 p.m. at VCU's Raymond Hodges Theater on Park Avenue. Tickets are $5-$15. Call 828-6026 for details.

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