Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Language Archive

In The Language Archive by Julia Cho, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, George (played by Craig Benson) is a linguist studying dying languages, while the language of his marriage dies unnoticed. He does catch on that his wife Mary (Terry Desch) is crying constantly (“She cries making the salad. She cries in her sleep.”) She also leaves him inscrutable notes (“Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot-water bottle?.. Love or explaining how to use the remote control?”) and then denies she wrote them.

In the elusive safety of his language lab, George hosts the last two speakers of Elloway (Lynne and Bob Wells) who spend the entire session arguing in English, because English is the language of anger. Elloway is the flowing, singing language of love.

 Meanwhile his competent and otherwise sweetly clueless assistant Emma (Christina Jioras) is learning Esperanto (an international language assembled from other languages by L.L Zamenhoff in the late 19th century, to promote world peace) because George loves it, and she (secretly) loves George. There’s wisdom from her Esperanto teacher (Pamela Lyall) and an apparent guest appearance by Zamenhoff himself (Jerry Nusbaum) as the story takes antic and yet believably odd turns, and people change, relationships shift, and life blossoms.

 From the first scene, when George interrupts his conversation with Mary to tell the audience what he’s thinking, it’s clear that this is not a naturalistic presentation but a story that the characters are presenting about themselves. It works because thanks to the actors, these characters are fully believable.

Casting is an imperfect art at best, and the availability of actors is a particular problem on the North Coast. But the stars aligned this time: this has to be the perfect cast for this production. Every one of them creates a memorable character, appropriately funny, poignant, and even inspiring, in a play that supports them. The best I can do is repeat their names: Craig Benson, Terry Desch, Christina Jioras, Lynne Wells, Bob E. Wells, Jerry Nusbaum and Pamela Lyall.

 American playwright Julia Cho is also an actor and writer for film and television. Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced this play last year, but this is the first time I’ve seen it or any of her stage plays (she’s written four more.) It’s two and a half hours with intermission, but it needs that generosity to create its worthwhile world.

Sometimes when a play has a governing concept (like the very real disappearances of languages) it feels artificial, or half-baked. But in this play, it is fully baked. Cho has thought through many of the human dimensions of language, and celebrates them. In Esperanto, the word “esperanto” means “one who hopes.”

 Director James Floss balances the lyricism with the reality, the comedy with the emotion. Daniel C. Nyiri designed the elegantly modular set, Michael Burkhart the lighting, Lydia Foreman the costumes, Jon Turney the sound. The Language Archive plays weekends at Redwood Curtain through March 10. One bit of advice for when you go: make sure to have plenty of fresh bread at home for after the show. Tickets: 443-7688,

Additional Notes

First, on the playwright's strategy of having the characters tell the story retrospectively, while acting it out.  It's an interesting narrative strategy, with levels of ambiguity--are we seeing what actually happened, or what the characters remember as happening, or even what they wished had happened?  But it is also a dramatically tricky strategy.  What really is the dramatic action?  Strictly speaking, it can't be the action we're seeing, because that action is being remembered and narrated.  The dramatic action is people remembering the past.  That's what is happening in the present, what's being enacted on the stage.

This also leads into la-la lands of representation and so on--the dramatic action of a play purporting to be the action we see is really actors performing, and so on.  But what's more to the point in the experiencing of it is how well does this approach work?  Contrast this play with Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, recently at NCRT.  In a formal sense, it also is a story being told by one of the characters, who occasionally steps out of character to narrate, usually to fill in action we don't see.  In that production, due to the writing or the direction or both, it was awkward and distracting. (The play was funny, in spite of this and other deficiencies.)  It was not as well integrated as The Language Archive, where it gave that play the sense of a fable, of a kind of contemporary fairy story told by a community of people.  (And like real fairy tales, it included unfortunate events.)  For me, the occasional narration did not disturb the presentness of the action, but in Laughter, it did.

The other thing I kept thinking about is the way director James Floss and actor Craig Benson chose to play the character of George, the language archivist.  I read that in the New York production, George was played as cold and emotionless, especially towards his wife.  At Redwood Curtain, Benson plays George as confused and conflicted, but not cold.

First of all, this is a difference that recurs frequently.  Characters that New Yorkers accept--obnoxious, aggressive, cold and calculating--are usually given a different interpretation on the North Coast.  They're usually more "human" you might say, or you might just say they're "nicer," more recognizably  North Coast. 

Frankly, I think that works better most of the time, and specifically, it really works better in this play.  First of all, George being caring but confused and exasperated in his reactions to his wife Mary's strange expressions of unhappiness is funnier than it would be if he were cold and remote.  His internal struggle is part of the couple's struggle, for she is also conflicted (leading to those cryptic notes which she denies writing.)

But besides mirroring Mary in a distorted way, this also parallels the cluelessness of Emma, his lab assistant who doesn't recognize that she's in love with George for a long time after it is apparent to the audience.  All of this brings both a warmth and a shape to this play, which otherwise defies definition.

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