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The Language Archive: A Modern Fable of Language Lost and Found

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Check out our interview with director Sally Edmundson.

The set-up:

An academic, a linguist immersed in the problem of languages disappearing as people cease to speak them, seeks to record one that may be saved from extinction. His obsession with the spoken word is ironic as he is hugely inarticulate, unable to communicate with a weepy wife, and unaware of his female assistant's crush on him.

The execution:

The play is a kaleidoscope of shifting colors, creating patterns that appear, then reshape themselves. It is episodic, introducing new characters almost by chance, and chance itself plays a huge role in plot progression. The episodes are linked by recurring characters, but these characters are largely undeveloped, with motivations either nonexistent or unrevealed.

My admiration is unbounded for Rick Silverman, playing George, the absent-minded professor. Silverman manages to make his paper-thin role both interesting and likable, no mean feat. And his body language is expressive, though his words fail him. Even so, it staggers the imagination that his assistant, Emma, played convincingly by Beth Lazarou, has fallen in love with this older, married man who is emotionally unavailable to anyone - she could do better in 15 minutes at the nearest Starbucks.

George's wife, Mary, is played by Shelley Calene-Black, in a bi-polar role that requires her to weep copiously over almost everything in Act One, and to be supremely happy and content in Act Two, after finding her bliss: baking bread commercially.

This is a kangaroo play, with the lower elements the largest. Two minor characters are the married peasants Resten, played by James Belcher, and Alta, played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and both are genius itself. They create memorable portraits of a loving but contentious older couple, and the implicit and perhaps unintended theme of the play becomes not language, but the thesis that life is more fun and more authentic if lived in ignorance of the greater world. They quarrel endlessly (it does go on too long) over her cooking, but at least we finally have a real though trivial motivation. Both Belcher and Amaral-Smith also play other characters, and do so with adroitly and deftly, with Amaral-Smith especially compelling as a teacher of Esperanto.

Playwright Julia Cho has authored a fable, not a narrative, and it becomes clear that what is missing from the work is a coherent theme, or a point-of-view. It is like French without the accent or German without the umlaut - we become vaguely aware that something is terribly wrong. She has written a play, but she apparently has nothing to say. There is window-dressing - languages dying, the aroma of freshly-baked bread is enticing, communication is difficult, and a stranger will give you the key to his business - but at the core there is an emptiness.

This is a stunning production, anchored by a towering set of file cabinets, which contains its own surprises, with scenic design by Ryan McGettigan and properties design by Jodi Brobrovsky. It is lit brilliantly by Kirk Markley, clothed with subtle wit by costumer Claire Verheyen, and populated with actors so gifted that I thought: Never has a playwright been so well-served by a production so lavish with talent. Sally Edmundson directed, and found the humor, and the pathos, and succeeded in papering over the weaknesses in the script.

The verdict:

Brilliant actors entertain lavishly with their performances, quick changes of place, changes of subject, and the continuing introduction of new characters weave a theatrical tapestry that appears enticing, but leaves one hungry for a dose of reality.

The Language Archive continues through March 3 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or contact www.stagestheatre.com

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