Buried in The Language Archive

I spent seventeen years working as a baker. In college I studied comparative linguistics. I also used to speak Esperanto, helped by collecting ESP Jazz albums as a youth (ESP being short for Esperanto, as it turns out). Indeed I once donated my own linguistics books to a production of the play, so by all rights I should be deeply sympathetic with Julia Cho’s play The Language Archive which is about linguistics and bread baking and learning Esperanto.

But no.

I’ve seen it three times now in different productions. Each time I see it the play reveals more untenable flaws, not the least of which is empty pretense. For a play that pretends to deal with language, it’s shockingly banal. It contains not a single intellectual argument or discussion, preferring instead to insert lectures and soliloquy. Remove its references to linguistics, and the play appears in its naked glory as a bourgeois melodrama about bourgeois characters dealing with the bourgeois topic of divorce with bourgeois generality.

In chain of escapist fantasies, George, the nominal protagonist, escapes into dead and dying languages. His wife escapes into the romantic fantasy of travel and a new life. Emma, George’s assistant, escapes into visions of romance with George. It all sounds so tragic, except it isn’t. All of them are completely self-absorbed as though their own pain were unique and somehow defined the entire universe. At any point any one of them could act or speak, but none of them does because, you know, words and stuff are hard. The minor characters around them have far more pluck than the three nominal leads, leaving me to wonder why the author didn’t simply write about them and leave ciphers like George, Mary, and Emma to wander off into a Tracy Letts play to be shot at.

Structurally, too, it fails me. Unidentified modes of address run throughout the piece. Characters dream, but then they don’t really. People lie, or maybe not; no one pursues the issue any further. Soliloquies on stage are heard by other characters on stage, but not consistently. The tidy summing-up by characters at the end is as fatuous as the end of a Hallmark Channel docudrama. I expected to see projected supertitles above the stage, saying, “It gets better” or “If you have trouble with being a gutless white person who avoids Truth, please call us at 206-555-1212” followed by a K-Pop song over the rear title credits.

Given all that, I knew the UW Undergraduate Theater Society would be up against it. But the wonderful thing about student drama is that is forces me to reassess. Particularly at the undergraduate level, the students choose plays because that’s what they actually want to do, and need not pretend otherwise. Consequently they throw themselves into their work and they find what speaks to them.

What speaks to director Parker Kennedy in this play is, I think, the way that it moves fluidly between inner psychology and outer expression as two distinct worlds that overlap. To that end, Mr. Kennedy has accentuated the play’s artifice. Fiona Clark and David Carli-Arnold have provided staging that is truly spartan. The stagehands themselves are clearly visible during transitions. Even actors leaving and entering make their transit by being wheeled in and out of the space while the beautiful “First Breath After Coma” by Explosions in the Sky plays in the background.

I think this helps the production greatly. The whole play is artificial, so the director’s artificial approach speaks to what he has found the text. Mr. Kennedy has also read the play for what it is in another sense: instead of a discursive piece of dramatized situations, it is really a series of actor moments. Best then to give them minimal structure, then get out of the way of the actors.

Much of this cast is new to me. I’ve seen Connor Mullaney, Jake Lemberg, and Hannah Probst before, and they are delightful as always. The chemistry between Mr. Lemberg and Ms. Probst especially charmed me. I am also very fond of Sarah Russell’s turn as the language instructor. It’s rough, silly, even naive, yet she imbues it with a genuine human tenderness without ever being saccharine.

Those minor characters have all the best lines. Watching Lucia Lobosvilla as Emma, however, was a revelation. Given perhaps the most difficult role in the play, Ms. Lobosvilla creates a performance that is remarkable for its subtlety. Her skill at listening actively while still keeping everything at a necessary emotional distance for her character shows a level of skill I wish some professional actors had. Emma is supposed to be the frumpy, unattractive, dismissible woman of small dreams in the piece, and yet Ms. Lobosvilla somehow turns her into a sympathetic and realistic woman instead of a mere type.

Given his family name, I expect good things from Dalton Broback. He handles George’s stultified personality as well as I might expect, and has a fine voice. But George would be challenging even for the finest actor in the world. How does one make him into anything other than an insufferably puerile oaf? I have no idea, because I’ve never seen it happen. Even a talent like Mr. Broback’s blunts as it pounds against that wall. I look forward to seeing him in something where he can let himself go a little more than here, where cluelessness is the name of the game.

As Mary, Lindsey Crocker seems to be working against what I think are her natural gifts for characterization. Part of the problem no doubt stems from my having seen it early in its run. There are moments where it seems she is in a hurry to get to the next peak moment rather than simply inhabiting her space–which she does very well. I suspect that this will smooth out over the run of the play. Ms. Crocker has a gift for physical work that would serve her well in a more comic piece. Her turn here made me consider how much more I would like this play if it were played more as a screwball comedy instead of a two hour Lifetime movie.

I await a production in which a cast this talented can make a real argument for the play. I haven’t seen that show yet–I doubt seriously that I ever will–but it must be possible. The students of the UW UTS have done an excellent job pointing out certain aspects of the play where it might actually hold some real power. But there is a long way to go. Nothing changes my mind that the play is fundamentally a compromised melodrama, when what I really want is either a real melodrama or a real dramatic argument.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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