“I don’t understand what you are trying to say. I have never understood anything you are trying to say,” says George, the protagonist of The Language Archive.
Can you love language but have no words for love? George is a passionate linguist but a passive spouse. He cannot express his love for Mary. She, in turn, hides odd little poems about her unhappiness and then denies ever writing them, such as, “Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot-water bottle? Marriage or an old cardigan? Love or explaining how to use the remote control?”
The Language Archive, by Julia Cho, is a play about how we communicate, or don’t communicate. The love triangle doesn’t feel old when it is wrapped in such a lovely blanket of beautiful language. Running through the script are several languages, both real and imaginary, including Esperanto. Imagined in the late 19th century in the face of growing nationalism and anti-Semitism, Esperanto creator L.L. Zamenhof wanted the world to have a langue of peace and understanding. Literally translated, Esperanto means “one who hopes.”
Never a pinball-paced script to begin with, director James Aday’s production is unabashedly languid. Beautifully choreographed movement plays against the careful words of the script, producing a ballet-like experience for the audience. It is an intentionally slow and thoughtful production.
The play juxtaposes the surreal with the mundane, such as when one character interrupts another’s soliloquy to the audience to remind him that she can hear everything he’s telling us. Production elements mirror this playful mix, like real books piling up and spilling over in front of the stylized books painted on the walls of the set, and glorious loaves of bread that you can see and smell.
The Language Archive is more quirky than emotional, so the interest lies in the characterization. Cho could have built more tension into her play. And because the script doesn’t hand out an attention-grabbing plotline, it’s on the actors to pull us in; they pull it off most of the time.
Kari Welch is a precise and gripping Mary. Lloyd Brass has an otherworldly George, bewildered and sad. While the rest of the characters luxuriate in words, the emotional power comes from the delightful Alta (Nancy Hopps) and Resten (Achilles Massahos), the last two souls who know Elloway; it’s a dying language they refuse to speak, as they prefer to argue in English.
It’s interesting to note that Tribes, another play about the power of language and love, is running currently at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, extending to Feb. 8. This gray weather blanketing our community is perfect for contemplation, and we have a unique opportunity to look at language from various angles in these two different productions. Cho’s question can hold us all in wonder, “What is language if not an act of faith?”
The Language Archive runs through Feb. 1 at the Very Little Theatre; $12-$17.