Language is a playground. Structures and agreed-upon rules are there to be bent and broken, juxtaposed and toyed with. The Kennedy Center’s latest commission, Where Words Once Were, posits a world where language has been restricted to the point of absurd oppression. It’s a tricky gambit, one that pays big dividends in Colin Hovde’s remarkably conceived production brought to elegant life with wonderful performances and excellent technical design.
This is invigorating stuff, with a wonderful bonus of being entirely family-friendly without sacrificing its political edge.
In reaction to a series of revolutions, The City government has declared complete control over language itself, limiting its residents to a strict menu of 1,000 words. With this restriction on language comes a restriction on ideas, and speaking forbidden words results in losing the power of speech all together. The City’s power over it’s citizens is so complete, that these silent dissenters actually become literally invisible to the general public, cursed to wander both unheard and unseen.
The story concerns the growing, reluctantly rebellious streak of young student Orhan (Chris Lane) who is slowly starting to realize the presence of a young, ghostly Girl (Alina Collins Maldonado)
Patrick Lord’s projection design makes great use of the tricked-out facilities the Kennedy Center provides. Lord is emerging as a leading talent in the nascent video-projection design field. His early projections of a rain soaked city set the mood for the young audiences, and later Lord provides some remarkably well-executed writing effects that allow the actors to interact directly with the projections. The projections meld well with Mary Keegan’s colorful lighting, which nicely contrasts dark blues and greys to denote an oppressed city, juxtaposed well with the colorful warmth she provides for scenic designer Andrew Cohen’s lovely, cozy bakery.
“This piece is truly a love story. It’s important for kids to see the world among them and for those who might feel silenced to realize they have a voice.”
DCTS talks with the playwright and director
Director Colin Hovde provides consistently clean stage pictures for his young audience and keeps the action moving at a great pace. He’s blessed with a lovely and wonderfully diverse ensemble led by Maldonado and Lane. Tony Nam does double duty as a rambunctious kid and a reluctantly oppressive government official. Kruckemeyer’s imposed 1000-word limit leaves his characters and actors with the same challenge: expressing complicated ideas and emotions with a simple, limited vocabulary. The cast is up to the task.
Where Words Once Were
closes November 27, 2016
Details and tickets
As enthusiastic as I am about Words, I think there’s still room for improvement in Kruckemeyer’s script. The ending feels a bit rushed, cramming a lot of plot into an exposition-heavy speech at which point the story just sort of declares a happyish ending and comes to an abrupt halt. Kruckemeyer also relies too heavily on narration from Maldonado’s Girl, another breach of show-don’t-tell.
Words is dark, heady material and remarkably sophisticated for a family show. The Kennedy Center recommends it for ages 9 and up. Kruckemeyer admirably respects his young audience to keep up with the fairly advanced rules and metaphysics of his world. I take the position that regardless of the age of audience members, it will inspire some meaningful dinnertime discussions.
Where Words Once Were is a script with a lot of potential, blessed with a first-rate Kennedy Center production.
Where Words Once Were by Finegan Kruckemeyer. Director: Colin Hovde; Set Design: Andrew Cohen; Sound Designer/Composer: Matthew M. Nielson; Properties Artisan: Patti Kalil; Projection Design: Patrick Lord Lighting Design: Mary Keegan; Costume Design: Danielle Preston; Dramaturg: Jonathan Shmidt Chapman; Stage Manager: Maribeth Chapmka. Produced by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor,