Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
In her play The Language Archive, Julia Cho explores that interplay of language and love as we meet a couple in the course of a break-up because spoken words fail them, an elderly couple who have spent a lifetime differentiating the languages of love and of conflict, and a young woman who learns a new language just so she can express a love she dare not speak in her native English. Following the company's half-century tradition of celebrating the human spiritjoys, foibles, and allTheatreWorks Silicon Valley opens its fiftieth season with Julia Cho's bold, funny and sad play about how we humans sometimes triumph, often stumble, but somehow persevere as we attempt to communicate with those we love the most.
George confides to us, the audiencea sea of strangers with whom he seems more comfortable in sharing his inner fears and frustrations than with his wife or anyone else in his daily lifethat he is concerned about his wife because he often finds her crying. He also finds cryptic lines of poetry in Mary's handwriting on strips of paper in sundry places from a book to a cup of coffeestrange, unsettling notes she denies with a dismissive laugh that she wrote. These notes say things like, "She likes to visit their marriage like a tourist, but like a tourist she knows she'll never get in." Even with those clues, when Mary blurts out, "I'm leaving," George can only look at her as if he has no idea what the words actually mean. All he can do is reach for his notebook as if ready to get back to his work, while meekly saying finally, "Don't go."
George, played by Jomar Tagatac, leaves his mostly bland and expressionless way of communicating about his life at home whenever he begins to speak enthusiastically of his passion for languages and the fact that every two weeks, one of the world's 6900 languages dies. He becomes especially ecstatic with lit-up eyes as he expounds on the virtues and beauty of Esperantothe international, auxiliary language of peace and understanding created in 1887. For George, "Life without Esperanto is unimaginable." But George becomes truly like a kid about to open his birthday presents when he bounces about the office excitedly to greet a couple of arriving travelers who are the last known speakers of Elloway; for now he has the chance to record another dying language for his institute's archives.
The married couple, Alta and Resten, arrive in colorful, wintry outfits with caps and scarves suggesting a cold abode like Tibetdelightfully fun costumes as part of the night's many examples of apparel artistry designed by Noah Marin. As soon as the two elders sit to record a conversation in their native Elloway, the two initiate a World War III-worthy conflagration of shouted wordsall in Englishover husband Resten's taking the window seat on the flight over as well as who was hogging the armrest.
As the two escalate into near fisticuffs with four-letter words thrown in for good measure, George and his assistant Emma are both appalled and exasperated that the language-preserving purpose of the visit has exploded into a spousal battle of armed, hurtful words (with the couple now having moved on to Alta's cooking which Resten clearly hates). When asked why they fight in English, there is a polite pause for the two to explain that they never argue in their native languageone meant only for lovebut they can say "hateful, hurtful things" in English. After all, "that is what English is for."
Emily Kuroda (Alta) and Francis Jue (Resten) from this first appearance until the final bow leave their unique impressions any time each or both appear on stage, either in these primary roles or in a number of others each takes on. Whenever she is on stage, Emily Kuroda has a tendency to spout forth in hilariously raspy, deeply guttural, and starkly abrupt syllables that are often accompanied by suddenly wild gestures, full-body bends and twists, and facial expressions startling and nearly ferocious. That is especially true when Alta is upset with Resten or when Ms. Kuroda plays a pointer-bearing/slamming Esperanto instructor trying to inspire her student to let go of inner inhibitions in order to learn. But when Resten has an unexpected medical issue and ends up in the hospital, the loving, spousal part of Alta emerges, with Emily Kuroda more than ever capturing our undivided admiration for her stellar, spell-binding performance. (And I haven't even mentioned when the actor's one line as a train conductor brings the night's loudest round of sustained laughter.)
Returning to TheatreWorks for his fifteenth starring role since 1988, Broadway, film, and television actor Francis Jue is equally a bombastic clown in the role of Resten when he and Alta come to near arms, providing a heavily accented round of expletive-rich insults and complaints exchanged in volleys with his wife. But, as she when he speaks with George, he is humble, sweet, and meek in voice when he and Alta later make peace and speak in their native Elloway. Jue also appears in a number of personality changing costumes that Noah Marin provides him, including a nice, friendly baker considering jumping in front of a train and the founder of Esperanto himself, a bearded, Abraham Lincoln-looking L.L. Zamenhof who appears in a dream to give love advice to Emma. In each case, the TheatreWorks fave leaves a unique, wonderfully nuanced impression.
Emma is suffering from a crush on her married boss that is unknown by him, but from our viewpoint is written all over her doting countenance and the way she seeks to make everything in the office perfect for him. Adrienne Kaori Walters is fabulous as the young woman who is struggling to learn Esperanto so she can tell George in his favorite tongue that she loves him. She is also one who noticeseven worries aboutthings like his elastic-stretched socks or the bit of hair he forgets to shave behind his right ear. Her Emma is a mixture of puppy-love infatuation and courageous determination, discovering while standing triumphantly on a table the proud, love-proclaiming warrior inside herselfall with the help of the oft-erratic, pointer-pounding instructor (Emily Kuroda) with her enlightening, personal parables about a past Dutch-girl love.
Emma is finally released to express her love for Georgeor so she thinksbecause of an encounter she has with George's wife Mary. Elena Wright is mysteriously coy in revealing exactly who this Mary is with her strange notes and her habitual bouts of crying, but she clearly portrays a woman who is ready to strike it out on her own after what have probably been years with a husband who rarely openly expresses passion for anything/anyone but his dying languages. A chance meeting with a man about to commit suicide who is holding close to him an orange package leads Mary to acquire both a new friend and a new life. Elena Wright's Mary is elusive to understand, intriguing to observe, and in the end inspiring in the choice she makes to take control of her life.
Each of these people confronts love from a different perspective with varying degrees of success, but all find a path to happiness that speaks much about the human capacity to survive and thrive even if disappointments, failures, and missed chances pop up in their lives. Love itself becomes a language to learn, to cherish, and sometimes if not to practice enough, to lose. Jeffrey Lo takes Julia Cho's often unexpected and clever turns of phrases, events and characters and directs this outstanding cast to provide a story full of laughs, heart and optimismeven when all the storylines do not necessarily end in "happily ever after together."
Andrea Bechert's scenic design deserves its own, dedicated scene in order to give us enough time to explore a three-sided wall of dozens of panels that are peppered with nooks, crannies, and shelves full of intriguing items, from an early Victrola to a reel-to-reel recorder to pictures, books, and a linguist's life in mementos. The spectacular lighting design of Michael Palumbo turns many of the walls' panels into lit screens of multiple, mood-defining colors of primary hues that also signal the effects of a fast-passing train. The latter also comes to life as part of the arena-filling sound design and effects of Sinan Refik Zafar who also has chosen scene-linking music that draws attention and attraction without being able to be totally identified as to type or sourcemusic with its own unknown but magnetic language.
The one part of the evening I found not as successful is each character having a "here's what happened to me" exposé. For me, that erases some of the magic of the evening and turns the play for a few minutes into more like something we often see on TV or the big screen.
What is more impactful, thankfully, is the final image we are left with, which solidifies for us upon leaving that this is a production that is not easily defined either as comedy or drama, as happy or sad, as reality or fantasy. Instead, Julia Cho's The Language Archive is all these and much more, making Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley's choice a perfect introduction to his final year of fifty at the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Winner, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
The Language Archive, through August 4, 2019, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org