Saturday, April 27, 2024

"Language Archive" by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

Julia Cho's The Language Archive, which premiered in 2010, is a sweet, odd, and endearing little play. Park Square Theatre produced the regional premiere in 2015, when I called it "smartly written, funny, a bit fantastical but very grounded in reality... touches the heart as well as the mind and the funny bone." I described it thusly: "It's about the different languages that we all speak, not just the actual language, but also the more intimate informal languages that we develop in relationships with the different people in our lives. Even though the characters in the play all speak English, they struggle to communicate with each other on a deeper level, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, as we all do." It's a great choice for Theatre Pro Rata, which consistently makes interesting choices (this is actually one of the rare times when I've seen one of their play choices previously). They've employed a talented five-person cast (Park Square had seven), and an inventive design with some unique delights. You can see this little gem of a play now through May 4 at the Crane Theater.

George and Mary (Joe Swanson and Megan Kim)
say goodbye (with Eva Gemlo, photo by Alex Wohlhueter) 
George (Joe Swanson) is a linguist who is obsessed with studying and recording endangered languages. Ironically, he is unable to communicate with his wife, Mary (Megan Kim), who is unhappy and decides to leave him. So George goes to his work, at a place called The Language Archive, where he records rare languages before they disappear. Along with his assistant Emma (Eva Gemlo), who is, of course, in love with him, his current task is to record the (fictional) language of Ellowa as spoken by a couple (Wini Froelich and Nick Menzhuber, who also play other minor roles) that he has flown in from a remote village somewhere in the world. But on this particular day, the couple is fighting and doesn't want to speak their precious language in anger. George struggles with how to accomplish this task while his world is falling apart, Emma struggles with how to tell George how she feels, and Mary struggles with finding a happier life. Watching them do so is a bittersweet joy.*

the Ellowa couple with George (Nick Menzhuber,
Wini Froelich, and Joe Swanson, photo by Alex Wohlhueter)
The play is written with a lot of direct address to the audience, as if the characters are confiding in us, allowing us insight into their thoughts that they're unable to share with those around them. They may be ineloquent in communicating in their relationships, but they're very eloquent in communicating with us, employing lyrical language and charming turns of phrases. My friend asked me if I knew when this play takes place, and I found I couldn't answer. There's really nothing that points to an era or decade. It could be current, or mid 20th Century, or anytime in between. They are using some old tech (cassette tapes and analogue recording devices) but it feels sort of timeless, or outside of time and even place, almost like a fairy tale. Even their costumes could really be of any modern-ish era, except for the Ellowa couple who are dressed in traditional vaguely Eastern European garments (costume design by Mandi Johnsn).

Director Nicole Marie Wilder leads this lovely cast, bringing out both the humor and the pathos of the story. In their hands, all of the characters feel like flawed, relatable, sympathetic humans. The performance space at the Crane is literally littered with books, stacks and stacks of them, plus many more books and pages hanging from the high ceiling. A comfy old recliner, a counter, and a work table are the only furniture, otherwise characters perch on stacks of books. In a charming and clever choice, an overhead projector is used to display scenery - shelves at the office, or a timetable at the train station - and manipulated in real time by the ensemble, even turning the projector so it displays on other areas of the set. For those of us who remember using transparencies in school, it's a fun element, that also feels somewhat scholarly, like the topics discussed (set design by MJ Leffler).

I saw A Jumping-Off Point earlier this week at the Jungle, which I said is the kind of play I love - a smartly written crisply designed three-hander about timely issues. But The Language Archive, although a very different kind of play, is also right up my alley - also very smartly written, but a bit more fantastical and emotional, with charming design of a bit more low tech nature, about timeless issues like love and how we communicate it. It's actually kind of a nice pairing, and I recommend them both (but getting to and parking at the Crane is much easier!).

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of Park Square's production.