Emma (Katie Atkinson), an assistant in a laboratory dedicated to the preservation of dying languages, is trying to learn Esperanto. She is having heavy weather of it. Finally she blurts out “I love George,” – George is her married boss at the lab. The instructor (Kerri Rambow) commands her – in Esperanto, of course – to reveal her feelings to George immediately. It is the most shocking thing anyone could say to her: “Tell him? I couldn’t!” she replies, and there, in a nutshell, is The Language Archive, a play about how to fail to communicate, in the sixty-nine hundred languages known in the world today.
George (Mitchell Hébert) is a good man, genuinely dedicated to the cause his profession advances. “When we say a language dies,” he explains, “we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life. It is the death of imagination, of memory.”
His wife Mary (Nanna Ingvarsson) has just left him, and he is gobsmacked. For weeks she has been crying inexplicably and leaving sad, wistful notes all over the house. He has no idea what they mean. He has no idea what’s wrong. And when Mary announces that she will be with him no more, his whole world, his whole way of life, begins to die.
“You think loss of our language is loss of our world,” says Alta (Rambow) who, with her husband Resten (Edward Christian), are the last speakers of Elloway, the lilting, vaguely Eastern European language George is trying to document. “But it is world that ends first, my friend. World die and then language follow.”
Ah: Alta and Resten. The laboratory has brought them in so that George can record them. They are particularly exciting visitors to the scientist: unlike most last speakers, they are fluent in the dying tongue, and because there are two of them, George can record dialogue, not just speeches and sentences.
They give him dialogue, all right. As soon as they get in the room they begin to scream at each other over why Resten got the window seat in the plane. Their profanity-laced tantrums soon veer into the dangerously personal – Alta’s cooking.
Worst of all, everything’s in English. Why? “Because English is the language of anger,” Alta explains. “And that is why we can argue in it,” Restin agrees. “Say mean, hateful, ugly thing—this is what English is perfect for!”
The Language Archive is an elegant, graceful confection of a play, whose startling observations and sometimes loopy plot developments mask the tensile strength of playwright Julia Cho’s theme: regardless of the scope and grandeur of language, and of your command of it, you can say no more than what is in your heart. George and Mary, articulate and intense, cannot say what the other needs to hear because their hearts are alienated from each other. Alta and Resten, despite the verbal napalm they direct at each other, cannot help but reconcile because their hearts are at one.
It is a very fine play but it is not perfect, and Forum Theatre’s generally strong production of it doesn’t resolve all the problems. Notwithstanding Atkinson’s fine performance, Emma’s pursuit of her boss seems to cover thematic ground covered elsewhere in the play, and helps give rise to Cho’s penchant for discursiveness – for example, in one scene George takes the audience through a brief lesson in Esperanto, and in another Emma has a conversation about eyesight and unrequited love with L.L. Zamenhof (played by Hébert), the inventor of Esperanto. I had difficulty believing a scene in which George talks Emma out of leaving the lab, and I was sorry that director Jessica Burgess held the curtain call before the play’s epilogue, in which the actors explain the ultimate fate of the characters. It is a beautiful and touching dénouement, and by bringing the audience out of the fictive dream to applaud the actors, Burgess diminishes some of the epilogue’s power.
Well, enough of that. Let’s talk about what’s great in this production. There is, to begin with, Christian and Rambow, who seem as the Ellowayan couple to have been, in fact, married for about fifty years, full of the winks, nudges and silent expressions that are the language (!) of a successful marriage.
George is who he is because it simply doesn’t occur to him to use language to manipulate or mollify his wife, and Hébert, who knows how to represent the power of honesty, makes George that sort of man every moment he’s on stage. Atkinson is extraordinarily proficient at using her face and gestures to represent Emma’s inner conflict; the earnest young woman who cannot let herself say the things in her heart allows them to play on her face. And Ingvarsson is, as she has been in every production I’ve seen her in, absolutely convincing.
And there’s more. Robbie Hayes’ set was a perfect use of the Round House-Silver Spring stage; two enormous tape reels – one with some special features – at opposite ends of the stage, with enough clear space to present the story’s many different venues cleanly. Thomas Sowers’ sound design was extraordinary, as it needed to be, for reasons which will become apparent to you when you see the show yourself.
The Language Archive
By Julia Cho
Directed by Jessica Burgess
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 35minutes, with one intermission