Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Language Archive
Beautiful Production, Intriguing Play
City Lights Theater Company

Also see Patrick's review of The Marriage of Figaro, Richard's review of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures and Jeanie's review of Company

Lisa Mallette and Jeffrey Bracco
Julia Cho established herself as an important voice in American playwriting around 2004, and has steadily been adding works to her repertoire that cement her reputation for thoughtful, moving and humorous plays. The Language Archive, her most recent opus, played Off-Broadway in 2010 and just opened at City Lights Theater in San Jose. Superb production values and a strong cast highlight Cho's funny meditation on language, love and identity.

George (Jeffrey Bracco) is a noted linguist compiling the definitive archive of languages in the world, especially lost or nearly lost tongues. He brings elder speakers to his lab, such as Resten and Alta (Ben Ortega and Deb Anderson) of vanishing fictional Elloway, to capture their speech before it disappears forever. But in his own home, George can't find the words in any language to keep his sad wife Mary (Lisa Mallette) from leaving him.

His pretty young assistant Emma (Kendall Callaghan) is in love with him but can't say it, and Resten and Alta refuse to speak their native tongue because they're angry—"Everyone knows when you're angry you speak English." Along the way we meet a flamboyant Esperanto teacher (Anderson) who knows how language channels love; the founder of Esperanto (Ortega), diagnosing blindness and unreciprocated love; a disheartened baker named Baker (Ortega) with a generations-old starter; and we witness life-changing epiphanies for all the characters.

Languages, words, speaking or not speaking—Cho draws an intriguing portrait of how we identify ourselves through language, the words we choose or that choose us. George's plight is miserable but self-inflicted; he admits he cares more about the death of languages than of people, and somehow that fits with the death of his marriage.

The first act includes some terrifically funny scenes, especially when Resten and Alta are on stage, juxtaposed with the melancholy of George's disintegrating marriage. The second half loses much of the humor, shifts focus to Emma and Mary, and opts for a more fantastical journey into mythic territory. Metaphors abound, and the play has trouble finding its resolution, but it manages a haunting poignancy at the end reminiscent of other contemporary playwrights like Mary Zimmerman or Sarah Ruhl.

The City Lights production soars with outstanding acting from a fine ensemble, not a weak link in the bunch. Bracco keeps George sympathetic in spite of the character's obvious deficiencies, making him sad and clueless rather than arrogant. Mallette shines as the depressed Mary who undergoes perhaps the biggest transformation of all—it's great to see the talented Mallette on stage again. Callaghan delights as the sadly smitten Emma, demonstrating why she's becoming a sought-after actress on local stages.

Anderson and Ortega almost steal the show as Resten and Alta, the bickering couple who become the heroes of the play. They get to show skills as other characters, too, but the Ellowayans light up the stage and capture our hearts as we wipe away tears of laughter.

Ron Gasparinetti's set is a marvel of shifting locales with simple use of platforms, rotating pieces, and Nick Kumamoto's brilliant lighting design. The archive spills off the stage, into the house, and up to the rafters, invading psychic and real space. Costumes by Jane Lambert beautifully illuminate character shifts, and boy does she have fun with the Ellowayans. George Psarras' sound design nicely complements action, gently underscoring the melancholy of act two.

In other words (no pun intended), it's a compelling production definitely worth a view—see it for the fabulous performances and make your own appraisal of the play.

The Language Archive by Julia Cho, presented by City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose; through June 29, 2014. Tickets $17 - $32; available at or at 408-295-4200.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith

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