ASHLAND – The hundreds of bankers boxes piled nearly to the ceiling on the stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “The Language Archive” represent the enormity and uniqueness of human communication.
Inside the boxes, we’re led to assume, are the results of painstaking efforts to record and chronicle disappearing languages. We learn early of the need for this work: Of the 6,900 languages left in the world, one dies about every two weeks.
And in the lives of the five main characters in this play – by award-winning Los Angeles-based screenwriter Julia Cho – three languages are in danger of dying. Only one is a literal language – Elloway, an ancient songlike tongue lost to all but the crotchety Resten and Alta, who refuse to speak it when they are mad at each other, which seems to be often.
George, a linguist, is desperate to record Elloway for his language archive. His passion for the project is fueled by his inability to preserve his own dying language – his marriage.
“Mary, there is a certain language – our language,” George says, appealing to the wife who has left him for reasons clouded by her sadness. “We’re the only two people who speak it.”
The third language on life support in this play is unspoken. George’s sweet-natured assistant, Emma (played by Susannah Flood, who is also performing in “Measure for Measure”), struggles with romantic feelings for her boss. Unable to speak from her heart, she seeks to learn Esperanto (a real language invented in the late 1800s) to better communicate with him.
Directed by Laurie Woolery, “The Language Archive” is set in the festival’s cozy New Theatre and runs through June 17. In 2010, Cho won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the two-and-a-half-hour play.
The central subplot is George and Mary’s marriage. A childless couple approaching middle age, they have lost their ability to connect. As the play opens, they communicate more with the audience than each other as they point out some of their disconnects. She cries a lot; he never cries. She’s leaving cryptic notes about marriage in his books, in his coffee cup, but denies writing them when he confronts her. She needs him to understand her, but he’s at a loss.
“Even with all my languages,” he tells us, “there still aren’t the right words.”
George tells the audience what does make him sad: the loss of a native language. “It is the death of imagination, of memory,” he says. (When he finally connects this to his marriage and offers Mary detailed reminiscences of sweet times together, it is too late.)
Mary wants us to understand that crying is its own language – that she sheds tears for many different reasons: “It’s so beautiful, so I weep”; “We are all marked for suffering, so I weep.”
She encounters a stranger in a train depot who unlocks what George cannot. “I woke up today and felt life was devoid of meaning,” he tells her – and suddenly she is freed to wax eloquent about her deep and conflicting emotions.
“Sometimes you can feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness,” she says. “And you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.”
Cho’s script is a rich buffet of word play and metaphor, requiring ample time to digest and process. The writing is clever, and the five-member cast does a highly commendable job (two actors play more than one role). The set design is spare but effective. One memorable effect was the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread for scenes in a bakery.
Learning about the strangulation of George’s marriage finally prompts Resten and Alta to resuscitate their dying Elloway, which, legend has it, was created by a man and woman in love. Just as Mary’s train stranger taps into her language, so Resten finds a way to speak to George’s heart, and the emotionally contained linguist finally cries, bitterly, for the loss of his marriage.
Meanwhile, Emma finds herself struggling to learn Esperanto, and her teacher challenges her to examine the fears that lie beneath her mental block.
“I never knew speaking a language could require such bravery,” Emma says.
“My dear, nothing could require more,” says her teacher.
For all its focus on communication, the play struggles to make the leap from head to heart. The drama of the subplots drives the viewer’s anticipation, like the slow climb uphill on a roller coaster. Arriving at the top, however, the track seems to plateau instead of plunge, and we slowly roll to a stop. The words have pained and tugged at our hearts, but don’t lead to cathartic release.
Maybe that experience is its own metaphor. We put our language out there and hope for the best. Maybe we’ll connect; maybe we won’t.
In the words of ancillary character L.L. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto (which he hoped would become a universal language to help foster peace and understanding): “What is language, my dear, if not an act of faith?”
Photos courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Click on these links to read A News Café reviews of OSF’s current productions of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” Harper Lee’s literary classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and Molière adaptation “The Imaginary Invalid.” To order tickets or learn more about OSF’s 2011 season, visit osfashland.org.
-Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor since 1992. A longtime theater fan, she sees up to four plays annually at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at [email protected].
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