BWW Reviews: Different Stages' THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE Explores Expressions of Love
At the top of the second act of The Language Archive, a skilled linguist named George (Trevor Bissell) gives the audience a lesson in Esperanto, a universal language created in the late 1800s. In the span of about 2 minutes, we learn the Esperanto translations of "I am loved," "I was loved," and "I have been loved," among others.
There's a reason why playwright Julia Cho uses Esperanto, which translates to "One Who Hopes," as the vessel through which her central character teach us phrases about love, most of which are in the past tense. George's his inability to express his feelings has driven his wife away. Regardless of what language he says it in, the best George can say for himself now is "I have been loved." As soon as the words leave his lips, George has a sorrowful, hopeless moment of self-realization, and yet the linguist still can't find the right words to express what he feels. He just stands there, completely numb. The heartbreaking and subtle moment is one of many that make Different Stages' production of The Language Archive so poignant and touching.
Julia Cho's wonderful new play masterfully expresses emotions that her characters all seem to struggle to define. George is more concerned with studying dying languages than he is with the decaying state of his marriage. His wife Mary (Circe Sturm) cries for no apparent reason and leaves cryptic notes all around the house, such as "Marriage or an old cardigan? Love or explaining how to use the remote control?" When confronted about her puzzling and somewhat passive-aggressive notes, Mary denies writing them at all. George and Mary's inability to discuss their feelings contrasts with Alta and Resten (Jennifer Underwood and Norman Blumensaadt), an Eastern European couple and the last speakers of their language. Here is a couple that can easily discuss their feelings. Ironically, their feelings are the antithesis of love. When George flies the couple to the States in order to record and preserve their tongue, he quickly discovers that Alta and Resten despise each other and have decided to carry out all of their arguments exclusively in English. George's assistant Emma (Eva McQuade) has problems in her love life, too, namely that she's in love with George who doesn't notice her at all.
If all of this sounds too heavy and depressing, then like Cho's characters, I too am finding it hard to express myself in words. Yes, there are sorrowful moments, but Cho throws in a healthy serving of comedy. After all, if your play uses the motif of a universal language of hope, there better be some moments of optimism. Cho's writing is consistently absorbing, but it does pose a bit of a challenge. The text is eccentric, peculiar, and unpredictable as it shifts tone from comedic to dramatic and back again at a breakneck pace. Director Karen Jambon confronts the text by allowing the words and emotions to come organically from the characters. The comedy isn't forced, and neither is the drama. It just is, and though some shifts in tone are somewhat abrupt, there's still a rhythm and flow to the piece.
If there is a problem with the play, and I'm still not quite sure if this is one, it would be that Cho's main character is the most uninteresting and unrealistic of the lot. It's tough to sympathize with George and the shock he feels when Mary inevitably leaves him. Seriously George, didn't the endless crying and the odd notes in your shoes tip you off? George's obliviousness when it comes to human interaction verges on sociopathy. Nevertheless, Trevor Bissell manages to make George Likeable and sympathetic, at least eventually. By doing so, Bissell's one-upped Cho's text which never seems to know what to do with George, and watching his optimism dwindle over the evening is heartbreaking but wonderfully effective. Circe Sturm is fantastic as George's unhappy wife. Her approach to portraying a woman desperately trying to mask her misery may make you think of Annette Bening's performance in American Beauty. Though the character's antics are wildly unrealistic, Sturm manages to keep her grounded. Eva McQuade gives a flawless performance as George's assistant, Emma. She's plucky and cheerful but shy and terrified of rejection, and her quirky personality immediately wins the audience over. Katherine Schroeder is equally as entertaining and fun to watch as Emma's professor, a stern but passionate woman who coaches Emma in the language of love just as much as she teaches her the language of Esperanto. While the role doesn't get that much stage time, Schroeder gets plenty of laughs. After all, a militant Dr. Ruth is inherently comical.
But the most laughs go to Jennifer Underwood and Norman Blumensaadt as Alta and Resten. While the characters initially come off like a caricatures you might see on Saturday Night Live, Underwood and Blumensaadt manage to bring more heart and substance to the characters. Eventually, we come to realize that Alta and Resten, despite their over-the-top introduction, are the most realistic characters in the play. They love, they hate, and they love again as many couples do. And whether the moment calls for tenderness or broad comedy, Underwood and Blumensaadt constantly deliver.
Sure, there are plenty of plays out there about love and the difficulties we all seem to have with expressing one of the most universal emotions. Still, that theme hasn't been expressed, or unexpressed, quite like this. The Language Archive speaks for itself.
Photo by Bret Brookshire.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE, produced by Different Stages, plays The City Theatre at 3823 Airport Blvd, Suite D, now thru February 1st. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $15-$30. For tickets and information, please visit http://www.main.org/diffstages/