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Theatre review

Self-regulating instability: Winding Road's 'Language Archive'

A nicely designed production of Julia Cho's "The Language Archive" has opened for a four-week run at the Cabaret and Roadrunner performance venues.

Directed by Susan Arnold for Winding Road Theater, this play about a linguistics professor's desperate attempts to preserve dying languages and his own expiring marriage features some terrific acting by Peg Peterson and Roger Owen and a marvelous original score by Robert Hanshaw.

Self-regulating instability

Cho is a Korean-American playwright and television writer ("Big Love," "Fringe") with an Arizona background who usually develops her plays at Costa Mesa's South Coast Rep before taking them national. She has received a number of playwrighting awards, most prominently the 2009-2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for "The Language Archive."

The play is about language and marriage, love and death, and, ultimately, I suppose, about how theatre is, like language, an archive of the everyday, "a vehicle," in the words of language theorist John McWhorter (not mentioned by Cho or Arnold), "for talking about life and emotions directly experienced, recalled, or predicted from moment to moment," a medium that engenders, critic Fani Papageorgiou explains, "a system of self-regulating instability."

Arnold, who is also Winding Road's artistic director, is an accomplished Equity actor and a creatively ambitious director. She directs "The Language Archive" with her characteristic gimlet eye for design, and she provides a safe and solid place for Peterson and Owen to act the hell out of the thing and steal the show.

Design work

Indeed, Arnold develops, induces, and supervises a lot of fine design work. Acting as her own scenic designer, she makes clever use of the Cabaret Theatre's small and awkward performing and viewing spaces by reconfiguring them (as other Cabaret-stunted directors have done over the years) as a three-quarters-thrust stage. Thus she creates two playing areas, one up on the little proscenium stage, where she locates the language archive and lab, the other on the much larger house floor, most of which she converts into a multi-purpose set where the rest of the play's action occurs.

The language archive is represented by a work table and chairs, some recording equipment, some shelves and papers and apparatus, and, most prominently, some raggedy stacks of simulated, rusty, distressed, even decaying (if that's possible) file cabinets, a fittingly moribund and melancholic repository for storing the remains of the dead languages George (Gabriel Nagy) is trying to collect and preserve.

The other sets — George and Mary (Leslie J. Miller) 's living room and kitchen, a bakery shop, a train station, a hospital room, the Esperanto instructor's office, a train car — are all efficiently synecdochical, represented by their most recognizable part (e.g., an easy chair, a counter, a bench, a bed), predominantly situated for sightline-purposes in the four corners of the space. They are clearly indicated by Sam Schwartz's lighting design, which skillfully and effectively works through and around the Cabaret's rather limited lighting resources.

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Robert Hanshaw's sound design is quite marvelous, consisting mostly of his own original composition, a hauntingly incantatory, nearly wordless plainsong performed at the top of the show by a women's chorus (Julia Jarret, Sarah J. Carver, and Seonaid Barngrover, who also plays Emma) and then used as a kind of recorded score commenting on the action throughout the rest of the play.

Stealing the show

Roger Owen and Peg Peterson, experienced Tucson actors whose work I have long admired and who each play several roles, are really quite wonderful here, especially as Resten and Alta, the aged, bickering, Elloway-speaking couple George is trying to record for posterity. They deliver charmingly energetic, precisely calibrated, beautifully paced performances.

Owen and Peterson look and sound just right together, their movements and accents meshing comfortably, as they speak to, through, and over each other in English (which they consider "the language of anger") and their native tongue (the language of "our love"). Each also plays another important supporting role: L. L. Zamenhof (or his ghostly avatar), the Polish opthamologist who invented Esperanto, and an unnamed Esperanto instructor who is, often exasperatedly, teaching this constructed, "universal" language to Emma.

Performing depression

Barngrover, as Emma, George's lovelorn lab assistant, does a nice job with a role that feels old-fashioned and never quite goes anywhere. She poignantly conveys her character's devotion and frustration, constantly finding slightly new ways to never quite muster the strength or the words or the moment to tell him how she feels, even after his marriage falls apart.

The performances with which I have some problems in this show — partly because of the way the play is written, but mostly I think because of the tonal register in which they and/or their director have chosen to work — are those of George, the linguist, and Mary, his weeping inconsolable wife, whose marriage is already dissolving when the play begins.

Nagy, whose work I have not encountered before, and Miller, who is a very good director, especially of comedies, are both solid actors who obviously know their way around a stage and a part. How then to explain the very slow, very quiet, hesitatingly underplayed register in which they begin the show and which Miller never quite abandons?

Well, one might answer, the characters' marriage is dying, and Mary is almost overcome with grief. But, I respond, she is weeping, not comatose; underneath all that depressive sadness is anger, a sense of loss and waste, a desire to escape, to reinvent herself. That, as the method actors say, is her through line.

But the actors begin the play in so deep an affective hole that they and the play never quite dig themselves out of it. Ironically, it seems, depression has to be energetically performed to make it theatrically viable.

In any event, I never quite got past that performative lethargy, never quite cared enough about Mary and George's marriage, about George's difficulty expressing his feelings (which also impacted my response to Emma's unrequited love for him — what, I kept asking myself, does she see in this feckless academic who can never, "even with all my languages," find "the right words"?), and about Mary's efforts to overcome her depression and her grief and discover a new source of joy (in baking, of all things).

A higher form of jokiness

Now, as I said above, part of the problem here is Cho's postmodernish script, particularly, the way she flattens out character. Nobody really has a back story here: there is almost no psychological depth, very little in the way of memory or dream or childhood. So we never really learn much about who George and Mary are or were, how they found each other, what went wrong.

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Instead what we get is a higher form of jokiness, some funny and occasionally arresting Stoppard-like wordplay linking linguistics and marriage, both of which, it turns out, can be understood as archives where the love of language and the language of love go to die.

A clever, instructive example of this conceptual humor is on the second page of the script. George is reading a scrap of paper in Mary's handwriting which he has found in one of his books, which Mary claims to know nothing about, and which seems to perfectly characterize the state of their marriage and the dysfunctional absurdity of contemporary bourgeois existence: "Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot water bottle? Marriage or an old cardigan? Love or explaining how to use the remote control?"

This is provocative stuff, the kind of disturbingly comedic wit upon which entire dramatic movements (theater of the absurd) and playwrighting careers (Ionesco, Beckett, Stoppard, Ruhl) have been founded, but Nagy's almost listless delivery hollowed out this moment and I couldn't hold on to it at the time.

All-purpose weeping

I also had trouble retaining Mary's monologue, the one a few pages and scenes later, when, as she is packing to leave the marriage, she insists she isn't weeping (merely) because she is depressed, but that weeping may be the all-purpose response to human existence: "I can't believe I'm going to die someday, so I weep. Or: I can't believe everyone is going to die someday, so I weep. Or: I am marked for suffering, so I weep. Or: we are all marked for suffering, so I weep."

This too is provocative stuff, with an equally long pedigree in the modern and postmodern theater, and it deserves to be energetically uttered, enough so that the actor can genuinely attempt to play the very challenging stage direction that follows it: "By now her face is radiant. There are still tears on her face, but there is something like joy shining in her eyes."

(Dis)closing

Winding Road is a sincere, accomplished, serious-minded, small nonprofit theatre company which has been around for the better part of a decade. I speak from personal experience: I've acted with them, been directed by them, served on their board. This may not be their best and most ambitious work (that would probably be their award-winning productions of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "August: Osage County," and "Cabaret"), but it's good enough, especially Hanshaw's score and Peterson's and Owen's acting.

Winding Road needs, and deserves, your support. So go see "The Language Archive" and get your instability regulated.

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Click image to enlarge

The cast of Winding Road’s 'The Language Archive': clockwise from left, Peg Peterson (Alta), Leslie Miller (Mary), Gabriel Nagy (George), Seonaid Barngrover (Emma), and Roger Owen (Resten).

What, where & when

  • Julia Cho's "The Language Archive"
  • Winding Road Theater Ensemble
  • March 16-26, Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
  • March 31-April 9, Roadrunner Theatre (formerly APCOT), 8892 E. Tanque Verde Rd.
  • Tickets $22-25 at windingroadtheater.org