Have you ever wondered how much of our culture and civilization is shaped by language? That’s one of many interesting themes in the world premiere of Gift of Forgotten Tongues by Fengar Gael at Venus Theatre.
Gael is the talented playwright whose Devil Dog Six gave Venus Theatre a major bright spot in last year’s theatre season. Similar to Devil Dog Six, Gift of Forgotten Tongues features a strong and talented young woman determined to overcome challenges to achieve professional and personal success. Yet while Devil Dog Six was firmly grounded in the real world details of horse racing, in Gift of Forgotten Tongues the playwright turns to the more fantastical conventions of science fiction.
Fernelle Millmore (Kelsey Painter), a rebellious teenager, is one of the nine most talented language savants in the world. She has an almost scary knowledge and love of the 7,000 languages on the planet, including many that are on the verge of extinction.
Yet Fernelle’s life, outside of her academic pursuits, is not a happy one. She is saddled with the responsibility of taking care of her perpetually drunk father, Felix Millmore (George Tamerlani), a poetry professor who skates by on his charm despite his lack of academic productivity. As a result, Fernelle leaps at the opportunity to drop out of school to consult on a secret scientific project being run by Dr. Weaver (Deborah Randall), an ambitious yet guarded researcher who only reluctantly allows Fernelle access to her work.
Dr. Weaver has come up with a genetic therapy that greatly enhances the brainpower of two individuals that she has dubbed ‘mutegans” (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly and Matthew Marcus). They evolve at a tremendous pace and initially begin to communicate in a blended mixture of languages, hence the need for Fernelle’s rare gifts. The mutegans then transition to communicating only in nonverbal behavior and an odd method of joint resonant humming.
The immature Fernelle is initially repulsed by these two slimy beings. When she breaks secrecy protocols to discuss the project with her father, however, he becomes obsessed with the creatures, believing that these two mutagens may have to potential to unlock the deepest secrets of human existence. When the mutagens demonstrate parasensory abilities that allow them to draw upon both the language and feelings of others, the stage is set for exploration of both intellectual and personal issues.
While the ideas and the science in the play may sound daunting, director Deborah Randall does a fine job working with her cast and creative team to make both play’s ideas and characters conflicts consistently interesting and involving. At times the dialogue is supplemented by prior laboratory taping of the mutagens made by videographer Kristen Anchor.
Gift of Forgotten Tongues
Closes September 28, 2013
21 C Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
The characters are clad in body stocking with some minimal adornment of blood vessels, abrasions, and bruises. The costumes, makeup, and set designed by Amy Rhodes are mostly effective, even though it is hard to resist imagining how interesting the story could be rendered in a larger budget science fiction movie. The only missing element may be a couple of matching skull caps given script references to alopecia and “hairless hybrids.”
The intelligent themes and the fine cast keep the audience involved throughout the story. Kelsey Painter, star of last year’s Devil Dog Six, again uses her considerable acting talents to draw a compelling character that practically demands the audience’s focus. George Tamerlani finds interesting ways to escape the boundaries of the stereotypical charming drinker, just as Deborah Randall gives some dimension to her most strictly drawn, narrower character.
While Gift of Forgotten Tongues itself is consistently involving, audience members may not agree whether the story’s conclusion lives up to the ambitious notions raised earlier. Even if the destination may not be the strongest part of the evening, the ideas expressed and the twists in the story make Gift of Forgotten Tongues at Venus Theatre in a journey definitely worth taking.
Gift of Forgotten Tongues by Fengar Gael . Directed by Deborah Randall . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight