Edward Albee fans will find themselves in absurdist heaven, more traditionally minded theatergoers may wonder what all the Albee hoopla has been about, but both will relish the experience of seeing Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo (the playwright’s name is part of the title) translated into American Sign Language and performed by three of Deaf West Theatre’s brightest stars at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts.

Plays don’t get much more hybrid than this composite of The Zoo Story, the two-hander that started things off for a then thirty-one-year-old Albee back in 1959, and Homelife, added nearly fifty years later to flesh out the character of Peter, virtually wordless during his life-altering Central Park encounter with the far more loquacious Jerry in the earlier work.

 Act One’s Homelife gives us an extended conversation between a wealthy publishing exec (Troy Kostur, voiced by Jake Eberle) and his sexually frustrated wife (Amber Zion, given spoken voice by Paige Lindsey White), one that has Peter asserting that his circumcised foreskin has begun growing back as Ann contemplates hacking off her breasts before then going on to demand more animalistic sex than the vanilla love-making she’s grown tired of, all of this in dialog that can come across less than natural with speaking actors (standing just offstage) required to time their words to fit the ASL signs of its Deaf West translation.

Fortunately, things take off when Peter meets Jerry (Russell Howard, voiced by Jeff Alan-Lee), the unkempt, unhinged stranger who spends much of Act Two’s The Zoo Story describing a bloody encounter with his landlady’s beast of a dog, a twenty-minute monolog intended to provoke Peter to Jerry only knows what.

I’ll let others more perspicacious than I attempt to explain the significance of Peter and Ann’s sex talk and Jerry’s dog fixation.

 What I can say without hesitation is how truly eye-opening a theatrical experience it is for a hearing, non-signing audience member to see Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo Deaf West-style.

Not only does simultaneous spoken translation allow entry into an otherwise impenetrable linguistic world, ASL signs add visual power beyond even the most emphatic gestures that might accompany a speaking actor’s work.

ASL’s very nature allows deaf performers to act out dialog (Ann’s demonstration of the way she wishes to be penetrated from the rear, Jerry’s of his encounter with that snarling monster of a dog) with a physicality that might seem over-the-top coming from a hearing, speaking actor.

 Whether Homelife is a worthy companion to The Zoo Story is open to discussion. Less debatable are the opportunities it offers the superb Kotsur to reveal aspects of Peter only hinted at in The Zoo Story, a performance matched by Zion’s mouse-turned-tigress of an Ann.

Most memorable of all is Harvard’s unrestrained brilliance as Jerry, a walking disaster you’re no more able to turn away from than a freeway pileup.

Ace director Coy Middlebrook keeps Eberle and White (each absolutely on top of the task) in peripheral view throughout Homelife while maintaining focus on Kotsur and Zion.

 Act Two, on the other hand, gives Alan-Lee and Eberle their own onstage park bench seating, the duo observing Jerry and Peter while translating their words, and Alan-Lee merits his own applause for voicing Jerry’s hour-long virtual monolog with power and depth.

Scenic designer Karyl Newman takes us from Peter and Ann stylish, literally interpreted living room to a more figuratively represented (and absolutely gorgeous) autumn park. Julien V. Elstop’s lighting design ranges from the subtle to the dramatic, Tom Jones’s dynamic sound design is as much vibration as it is music and effects (for obvious reasons), and Newman’s costumes are as character-revelatory as contemporary costumes should be.

Tyrone Giordano takes over the role of Jerry (a performance that won him a 2007 Lead Actor Of The Year Scenie) beginning March 16,

Sandra Mae Frank is assistant director. Jennifer Brienen is production stage manager and Kelsey Gilchriest is assistant stage manager. Linda Bove is ASL master and Jessica Frank and Justin Jackerson are assistant ASL masters.

Though I’d likely pass on a traditional staging of Edward Albee’s (Perplexing) At Home At The Zoo, no one who loves theater should miss seeing it Deaf West style. Whether hearing or deaf or somewhere on the spectrum, ASL proficient or not at all, playgoers are in for an electrifying evening at The Wallis.

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Lovelace Studio Theatre, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
March 10, 2017
Photos: Kevin Parry


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