Combining opera with silent theater may seem counterintuitive, but Theatre of the Silence, a radical troupe from Hong Kong, provides sound evidence that body language can tell a story just as well as — if not better than — words. Founded by several hearing-impaired actors, the group, in collaboration with the S.F. Mime Troupe, is mounting an adaptation of a 17th-century K'unshan opera, 15 Strings of Cash, which includes few words to speak of. A political drama based on a 13th-century fairy tale, the original opera describes an innocent couple falsely convicted of a murder through a faulty political system in ancient China. An honest magistrate makes it his mission to uncover the real murderer, thus saving the couple from an unfortunate demise. The Mime Troupe's Joan Holden adapted the opera to take place in the 1920s, presenting it as a detective story told solely through miming, sign language, and overhead supertitles (to be flashed on an electronic sign at only the most necessary intervals).
Just because the production is accessible to the deaf doesn't make it irrelevant to the hearing. Director Dan Chumley (also of the Mime Troupe) combines the silent-film style of Charlie Chaplin with the highly physical gesture of commedia dell'arte to create a dynamic fusion that feels simultaneously new and ancient. The production isn't totally soundless, either; it has a musical score, conceived by Lee Chi-man and based on the opera's original tunes. The main concept is universality — the idea that theater is as important to the deaf as it is to the hearing, as relevant to Hong Kong as it is to the U.S., and as timely now as it was hundreds of years ago. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this collaborative project is one hell of a conversation.