Deaf and disabled actors, shoved out of the spotlight in an overworked (and invented) stage performance, shine light on how they experience the world. That’s the premise of Peeling, in its U.S. premiere, and another powerful show from Sound Theatre Company. It runs through August 24.
U.K. playwright Kaite O’Reilly’s Peeling is, technically, a play within a play. Its three characters are shown on stage and behind-the-scenes in an invented update/adaptation of an epic, called The Trojan Women: Then and Now.
But in Sound Theatre Company’s gripping production of the rarely produced 2002 play, those meta elements take a back seat to the interpersonal dynamics of the three actors – and what their conversations reveal as they’re increasingly brutal to each other.
In this compact (90-minute) play, Alfa, Beaty, and Coral are relegated far upstage and behind a curtain, night after night, for most of an hours-long epic. As a group, they get a few moments of stage time per show; and as Deaf and disabled actors in the menial roles, it seems they were brought in strictly to score the company some diversity points. Once there, they’re all but ignored. Instead, the actors must entertain themselves — which occurs more through cruel jabs at one another than camaraderie.
Front and center in their scuffles is a supposed sliding scale of disability. Although the three are cast as equals in the little-used chorus, one (Beaty, played by Sydney Maltese) occupies center stage, spatially and socially. She taunts Alfa (played by Michelle Mary Schaefer) over a missed cue, after no one bothered to consider whether audio-only announcements were effective alerts to a Deaf actor (hint: they’re not). She leaves Coral (played by Carolyn Agee) stranded during a costume change, for no one among the costumers and crew seems to care how smoothly such a transition might be performed while seated in a wheelchair. Having written both of them off as incapable, Beaty asserts superiority over her fellow chorus members wherever she can interject it.
It’s the internal riffs between the three — and, occasionally, those volleyed unheard at the cast and crew — that tell much of the story. And it’s through those riffs the audience can see, as the layers are peeled back, that the three are all raging against the same machine: the presumption of people with disabilities as “less than,” whether in the form of undervaluing their talents or viewing them as a drain on society.
The result is something rarely seen: a beautiful production in which access is the point, rather than a sluggish afterthought.
All the while, they’re contending with something of a fourth character on stage: the dresses. Dramatic, comically outsized sculptures envelop the actors, who must strap themselves into the immovable costumes to bring the chorus to life. The structures are metaphors — but for what? Cages, unnecessary adornments, and overall excess all come to mind; but what of the spirals of enormous rope, the dismembered dolls, and the abstract windows or boxes which cover their outer layers? The interpretations are endless. And each of those shells — giant, fully wrapped layers — must be removed by the actors themselves during costume changes, first by escaping the giant apparatus. The construct is, both comically and tragically, absurd.
The script and production work in tandem to call attention to disability, in various forms and nuance, rather than to mask it; and they do so with capability as well. In what Tim Gunn would call a “‘make it work’ moment,” Agee works some magic to get a costume change done when her co-actor snubs her. Schaefer, a Deaf person, speaks all of her parts rather than exclusively signing them. Various points of accessibility — from audible descriptions to projected captions, incorporated fully into the work — are given paramount attention.
The result is something rarely seen: a beautiful production in which access is the point, rather than a sluggish afterthought. All three actors are terrific in their roles. Director Teresa Thuman (the company’s Artistic Director, and a prominent champion of accessibility among Seattle-area theatre artists) and assistant director/ASL director Monique Holt (an actor and theatre-maker featured recently in Harlequin’s Man of La Mancha; see review here) combined for exactly the right directorial choice for this work. The talent was apparent on the deep bench of designers and production members — among them Taya Pyne and Parmida Ziaei (scenic and costume designers), Adrian Fragola Kljucec (sound designer), Jared Norman (projections designer), and Richard Schaefer (lighting designer/technical director).
Sound’s incisive production of Peeling tackles systemic barriers in a keen script, with humor, anger, and grace. It’s a potent follow-up to Citizen: An American Lyric, which the company produced last month (see review here). And like with Citizen, the rare, frank discussion of difference, tokenization, and ability make it worthy viewing for “every nonprofit arts administrator and board member in town.”
The play doesn’t try to answer too much. Instead, it leaves a steady stream of questions: What are the systemic barriers to equity, even when all are given “equal” treatment? What are the presumptions that discard others without recognizing their worth? Why are we so cruel to each other? Those are the local, the accessible, the personal. Add to them a more macro question: Why do we allow, even condone, intolerable cruelty against others?
It’s this last question that’s often the most sinister, and the easiest for which to abdicate responsibility. We do it by othering. (They aren’t like us; they don’t have our capabilities.) And we maintain it by othering the oppressor. (They aren’t like us. They don’t share our values.)
Examples abound — among them, eugenics and despicable medical practices. In Peeling, images of Nazis are projected onto the backdrop, reminders of their vast “purity” pogrom, and of the vile experiments they carried out in Europe against people with disabilities and others.
Lesser-known are the ways in which the United States subscribed to similar values, with a history of subjecting Black Americans to dissimilar and “experimental” medical procedures without consent (see a summary here, and read about persistent disparities here); or of sterilizing people with disabilities against their will. It’s easier to pretend those are Nazi values rather than homegrown ones.
(You can read the offensive text of the Buck v. Bell decision, written by venerated Justice Holmes, here; though it’s been eroded, the Court’s opinion technically remains good law — a sign of a country that’d prefer not to admit its mistakes and, perhaps, to keep that door open.)
Peeling is a difficult piece to write about, both in its subject matter and in its performative aspects. Even more so than other works of art, it’s likely to be a subjective experience, relying especially hard on such wide-ranging factors as a viewer’s experience with Deaf and disabled performers, knowledge of eugenics, history with diversity politics, and views on abortion. Everyone will experience something different.
That’s all the more reason to see it for yourself — and the experience is apt to be a profound one.
Peeling runs through 8/24 at the Center House Theatre on the lower level of Seattle Center’s Armory. Tickets are $5-$75 (sliding scale for all), available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible; ASL, captioned, and sensory-friendly performances on select dates (see ticket link for show dates). Financial accessibility: all tickets for all nights are on a name-your-price financially inclusive model, with ticketing options beginning at $5.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.