at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Language Archive
by Julia Cho
I saw the opening performance of The Language Archive in February and suffered much embarrassment on our drive up to Ashland for our annual Memorial Day visit as I was asked about the play. Even when I was prompted with a listing of the title, cast, and writer, I could not remember a thing about the story itself. It took me many, many minutes to recapture the inability of linguist George (Rex Young) to communicate with those who mattered to him, first his wife Kate Mulligan (Mary) and then his assistant Susannah Flood (Emma). Then the counterpoint older couple who communicate in the language of love, Richard Elmore (Resten) and Judith Delgado (Alta), came back into my mind.
I am not surprised that the Archive had disappeared so thoroughly from my memory. The 2-1/4 hour show is pleasant enough, well acted, predictable, heavy handed, and (obviously) forgettable.
Julia Cho’s script doesn’t stand the test of time… in this case just a couple months. George is in charge of recording languages before they become extinct. He’s fascinated with words the the subtleties of communication, in particular the way “I love you” is expressed in different language. Of course, those are the very words he cannot say to his wife, or, it turns out, anyone. Get it? The language guy studying “I love you” cannot say “I love you” to save his own emotional life. And, yes, the play is a tad self-indulgent, even as it is also fun to watch go by. Fortunately, the production is not as humorless and self-important as production podcast, but it is unsubtle at best.
There’s wit in the show and the actors do yeomen jobs letting us glimpse at just how stifled George is in his various relationships. We are repeatedly charmed by Resten and Alta and their ability to speak, communicate, and live most fully.
Mary leaves George to follow her heart and winds up stumbling on a dream job of nurturing yeast and baking bread. This subplot is straight out of Kerry Greenwood’s Corina Chapman murder mystery series. On opening night, the second act starts with the smell of freshly baked bread in all corners of the theater — a nice touch, although I have heard that the olfactory lagniappe is no longer noticeable. Still, you will get the point. Mary moved on and found what she needed.
Emma, Resten, and Alta move on in their own ways too. We see how George’s constipated emotions restrict the range of his life experience. Just to make sure we understand how wasted George’s life is, we get an epilogue narrative that tells us that George never gave himself to life.
The end-of-play wrap up was produced in the leaden way that weighed down the entire show. A character spoke to the audience and told us what happened. Throughout Archive the fourth stage wall was broken down and the audience was addressed, usually to give us some complex explanation which we either didn’t need to know or else we should have been acted and not discussed. Archive‘s epilogue was no smashing Six Feet Under coda. But, then again, the main story was no quality drama, either.
If the Archive experience sounds cut and dried, it is because it was. I enjoyed watching the acting and listening to the lines. It just wasn’t compelling or memorable theater.