It's Saturday, what actor Howie Seago calls Red Body Day. On Saturdays, he's got two performances of the American National Theater production of "Ajax." Twice he will sit in a glass booth partially filled with red stage blood, twiddling his thumbs for 15 minutes until the tank is unveiled and he makes his first shocking appearance.
The red tinge his skin gets from the liquid doesn't bother him as much as its stickiness. "I can't get my fingers apart after that," he explains. Not such a trivial matter when one realizes that Seago is deaf and delivers his dialogue in sign language.
"Basically I am a poet inside, and I just love getting involved with language that has double and triple meanings and a lot of imagery," says Seago. "I love the challenge of putting it out in the air for people to see."
In an interview, an interpreter translates questions and Seago's signed answers, but his simultaneous speech can be understood.
On stage Seago's lines as the title character in "Ajax" are spoken for him by various cast members, but it is his powerful and expansive signing technique -- an art form in itself -- that really tells the story.
Seago, a performing arts instructor on leave from the National Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., says he appreciates ANT director Peter Sellars' "taking a gamble on me." For Sellars' part, however, casting Seago in his and playwright Robert Auletta's updated version of the Sophocles tragedy was no gamble at all.
"Howie is one of the great artists in this country," says Sellars, who directed Seago four years ago in a production for the National Theatre of the Deaf. "There are only a handful of actors like him -- deaf or hearing."
And while many critics have not been kind to Sellars' production, they are nearly unanimous in their praise of Seago's performance. (Newsweek's Jack Kroll wrote: "Not since Olivier's Oedipus has an actor come so close to the primal power of Greek tragedy.")
Seago comes from a family of five children. His father and two brothers (one of whom is also an actor) are deaf and his mother and two sisters have normal hearing. He and his wife (who can hear) are the parents of a 4-month-old boy, Ryan David, who appears to have normal hearing.
"I always thought that if I had a boy he might have a hearing problem because in my family it's hereditary," explains Seago. "It didn't matter. I look at my family," he says, "and my parents did a great job of raising us. Children will do well if they have love," he says. "That's why I'm where I am today."
Seago, who is 32, has been acting since his mother directed him in a church play 20 years ago. Asked if has ever thought of himself as disabled, he replies, "Oh, no, never. I knew I was different, but I always felt that I was special.
"We -- deaf actors -- would like to be regarded as artists first," says Seago. "And to be considered for a wide variety of roles based on our . . . acting ability -- not just because we are deaf or the play has something to do with deafness.
"You see how some roles can be modified," he continues. "Like, why not do 'Othello'? Othello was a black man from the Moors -- a foreigner in a strange land. So why not have Othello be a deaf person in the land of the hearing?"
Since he can't hear audience response, Seago says that when performing he tries to keep an eye on the crowd to gauge how it is reacting. "But it's very difficult to watch and concentrate on what you want to do at the same time," he says. "It's kind of distracting . . . schizophrenic.
"Most of the time I just feel an instinct inside," he explains. "I know when I'm losing an audience -- I get a weird feeling of vertigo, or 'Uh oh, I've got to get going, get fired up again.' "
And he is never able to rely on his fellow actors to carry him. "Because I am deaf I don't hear whether their energy level is up or not," he says. "So I really have to depend on myself totally to be up."
Seago says he thinks deaf actors will be cast more frequently now in the hearing theater "because of the impact of the National Theatre of the Deaf, 'Children of a Lesser God' and this, 'Ajax.' People will see that sign language has a lot to offer to any production," he says. "It makes things become larger than life. It's a beautiful, expressive language."