Actor Monique Holt stares intently with her fierce dark eyes, as her hands dance delicately through the air, signing her fluid, inaudible language. “You can’t speak without understanding what a character is trying to tell people,” she says through her interpreter, Tim Chamberlain. When Holt takes the stage as Cordelia in the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of King Lear (which runs through Oct. 24), actor Floyd King, as the Fool, will speak for the actress. Holt’s portrayal of Cordelia allows director Michael Kahn to examine the relationship between Lear’s youngest daughter and the King’s Fool.
Kahn, who is directing Lear for the second time in his career, says that on the Elizabethan stage, the same actor might have played both Cordelia and the Fool; the two never have lines in the same scene. When Cordelia disappears from the play, the Fool ensures her continued presence in the minds of the audience. And when Cordelia is killed, at the end of Lear, the King wails, “My poor fool is dead,” suggesting the intense link between his “children.” The two are bound together—the Fool giving voice to Cordelia’s deepest emotions—reinforcing their crucial roles in Lear’s life.
Holt’s deafness also heightens the theme of language in the play. The play “is about the misuses of language, the way people use language to hide the truth,” Kahn explains. Cordelia’s devotion to her father does not block her commitment to the truth. Kahn was intrigued by the idea of employing a nonspeaking actor to flesh out a character who can’t utter a falsehood. While the text singles out Cordelia for her steely resolve, Kahn says Holt’s condition “sets Cordelia apart even more”: She doesn’t communicate like the other characters.
Communication is of no small interest to Holt. She has worked hard to create a “poetic” style of signing that’s appropriate for the stage. Her goal is “to match what Shakespeare wrote” using only her body. “Sign language makes you comfortable in your body,” Holt says, hands flying. Although the challenge of rendering Shakespeare in American Sign Language is considerable, Holt says her primary focus is on understanding the character’s personal history and emotional makeup: “The language within the character becomes the expressive demand.”—Neal Carruth