Monday, November 22, 2010

Off Broadway: The Language Archive

The Language Archive by Julia Cho, now playing at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, treads familiar ground in its explorations of language and the consequences of miscommunications between men and women – but it does so in such a delightful, original manner that it makes the whole endeavor more than worthwhile.

The basic story line is simple: George (Matt Letscher) is a professional linguist who runs an archive dedicated to the preservation of dying languages and who speaks a dozen languages (including the artificial universal language Esperanto) himself; yet he is somehow unable to communicate effectively with his own wife Mary (Heidi Schreck). Nor is she any more able to communicate effectively with him.

George is cool and abstract, grieving more over the death of a language than the death of an animal, a human being, or even a multitude of human beings. Mary, on the other hand, bursts into tears at the slightest provocation and is taken to attempting to communicate with George through aphorisms (with about as much depth as those found in Chinese fortune cookies) which she writes on scraps of paper, conceals about the house, and then denies having written. It comes as no surprise to the audience when Mary walks out of the marriage, although it does appear to come as a surprise to George.

There are several sub-plots as well. One centers on Emma (Betty Gilpin), George’s associate at the archive who has been in love with him for years, but who has been just as unable to communicate her feelings for him as he and Mary have been to communicate their feelings for one another. A second relates to a suicidal baker (John Horton) with whom Mary swaps roles, to their mutual advantage, shortly after she abandons her husband. And a third, the most phantasmagorical of them all, relates to Emma’s meeting with Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof (John Horton), the true inventor of Esperanto who actually died in 1917.

But the most important of the play’s sub-plots – and this one not only does break new ground but, in doing so, provides the most entertainment of all - revolves around Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an elderly couple from some unnamed Eastern European region who are the only remaining speakers of the Elloway language left on Earth. George is eager to transcribe their conversations before they die, lest their language die with them but, having transported them from their native land to his archive, he is suddenly confronted with another communications problem: it seems that Alta and Resten are angry with one another and, when they are angry, they refuse to communicate in Elloway (which they perceive as a language of love) but only speak English (which they consider an appropriate language with which to express hate and anger).

And why are they so angry with one another? For a host of trivial reasons, of course: Resten occupied the window seat on their flight from home rather than offering it to Alta. Resten hogged the arm rest between them. But for at least one other reason as well that might not be so trivial after all: Resten has refused to eat the food that Alta has so lovingly prepared for him.

(Apparently, in introducing this conflict over food, the playwright has focused on a traditional form of male-female interpersonal communication: women manifest their devotion by proffering food to their partners and men express theirs through their gracious acceptance of it. A bit one-sided, perhaps, but surely with a modicum of evolutionary truth to it. And, as if to underscore this point, when Mary assumes the role of bread baker after abandoning her husband, she does so with a vengeance, baking all night and distributing her breads all day. Once she has done that, she is capable of affectionately bestowing a loaf of bread on George when he ultimately discovers her whereabouts.)

But back to Alta and Resten. At one point, their mutual animosity rises to such a pitch that they impose irrevocable shunning spells on one another – vowing never to communicate with each other again. If the spells are not reversed (and, as it turns out, the last Elloway shaman capable of reversing such spells died years ago), they appear destined never to speak to one another again – which would completely thwart George’s aim at preserving their language for posterity.

So these are the intertwined linguistic questions requiring resolution. Will George find the words to win Mary back? Will Mary find the means to express her feelings to George in a way he will understand? Will Emma finally communicate her feelings to George? Will Alta and Resten resolve their differences and speak to one another again in their native Elloway?

I won’t disclose the answers to those questions because I don’t want to ruin the whole theatre-going experience for you. But I will say this: you are likely to discover that the actual resolution of those issues will be less important to you than the insights you’ll derive from interpreting the play’s themes. And it is even more likely that your interpretations of those ideas may be at considerable variance to my own or to those of whomever you might chance to see this play with. Which is all to the good, of course, since the most worthwhile plays, at least in my experience, are those which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.

Consider, for example, whether our perception of reality is dependent upon the language we use to describe it or whether the language is selected to describe what is already there. Does a society or culture die when its language dies, or does the death of a culture presage the death of a language? On a slightly more mundane note, when Mary first told John she was leaving him, she entreated him to say something – clearly seeking an emotional, ideally tear-laden, response from him. But John, who we know to be a cool, abstract, dispassionate sort who cares more for languages than for people, did not weep nor even avow his unconditional love for Mary; the best he could muster why to tell her not to leave.

So does that mean that it was John’s fault that the marriage ended because he could have preserved it with a different choice of words and emotional expressions at the moment? But why should the choice of specific words be so important? When Alta and Resten are explaining expressions in Elloway to George later in the play, one of the points they make is that their idiomatic expression for “I love you” actually translates out literally as “Don’t leave me.” So if those words mean “I love you” in Elloway, why couldn’t Mary have understood them that way from John in English? And why should Mary get a pass on her idiosyncratic written messages, irrational behavior and the fact that it was, after all, she who left the marriage, not he. Finally, when John presents Mary with a mixed tape expressing “I love you” in every language he knows, why is that not enough? So is it really Mary’s fault after all?

The power of words apparently has its limitations, if substance is lacking.

The play intentionally has been staged and directed in something of a cartoony, two dimensional, or fairy tale manner which makes it difficult for even the most accomplished actors to portray their roles in considerable depth. Nonetheless, Matt Letscher, Heidi Schreck and Betty Gilpin all performed admirably and John Horton who, in addition to playing the part of Resten took on the additional roles of L.L. Zamenhof and the suicidal baker, performed all of his roles superbly.

But the highest praise must be reserved for Jayne Houdyshell who virtually stole the show in her roles as Alta and as Emma’s Esperanto teacher. Her performances alone are worth the price of admission.

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