Sharonlee McLean

Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?


Bock to the Futura at Center Stage

Adam Bock's "The Typographer's Dream" is fully engaged with the playwright's idiosyncrasies. So is the audience.

Smith. Shepherd. Mason. Miller. Fisher. Brewer. Historically, as such familiar names attest, occupation and identity were inextricably linked.

These days, however, the idea that we are what we do is open to question. A society that values social mobility (in theory, at least) has to make room for occupational mobility, too. And what about those 128 hours per week (in theory, at least) not spent in the office/shop/factory/whatever? Might someone be more inclined to think of himself as a dad than as a database administrator, as a Blazermaniac rather than as a bus driver? The notion that you should make your passion your work, that you should “follow your bliss,” is appealing but often impractical. Not a lot of tomatoes get sorted under that workforce model.

Still, lots of jobs carry with them an assumption that they say something about the interests, the attitudes, the character of the folks who do them. Take, for example, a typographer, a geographer and a stenographer — the three jobs/characters who take the stage in the latest Adam Bock play at Portland Center Stage, The Typographer’s Dream.

Smith, McLean, and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

McLean, Smith (center), and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Bock has had an ongoing creative relationship with PCS (in particular, with associate artistic director Rose Riordan) for the past decade, teaming up for the darkly comic hits The Thugs in 2005 and The Receptionist in 2010, as well as several workshop readings and last season’s strangely unsatisfying family drama, A Small Fire.

The Typographer’s Dream returns to the workplace concerns — the occupational preoccupations, if you will — that drove The Thugs and The Receptionist. Yet seasoned PCS followers might be reminded less of previous Bock plays than of Jordan Harrison’s Futura (workshopped at the 2009 JAW festival, then fully staged in 2011), the first half of which is an extended lecture on the history and nuances of typography.

Harrison used that unconventional expositional device to launch a dystopian socio-political thriller. Here, Bock employs a similar approach — a career-day panel discussion — to matters more mundane yet also more personally profound, asking the question, as a PCS blog post puts it, “Are we defined by our work?”

Speaking of work and workplaces, PCS doesn’t maintain an in-house acting company, but the performers here come close to such status. The reliably wonderful Sharonlee McLean, as the typographer, is in her 22nd production here, the playbill notes. She’s again teamed with Laura Faye Smith, as the geographer, who starred alongside her in both The Thugs and The Receptionist. And Kelsey Tyler is a full-time PCS employee, not as a stenographer but as education & community programs director.

Under Riordan’s scrupulous direction, these three have developed deliciously deft comic timing and sharply drawn characters out of what must have seemed amorphous material on the page. The three characters sit at tables amid Daniel Meeker’s purposefully drab scenic and lighting design and tell us about what their job involves, how they became interested in the field, why it matters, and so on. But they speak in fragments, interrupting one another, following no particular sequence of subject. It’s almost as if they’re deliberately ignoring one another, except for a sense of some underlying competition or animosity, as if they’re jostling with non sequiturs instead of elbows.

At one point, sound designer Scott Thorson tosses in a kind of auditory red herring, a loud clang like an anvil dropped into the guts of a piano. Could it presage the sort of sinister forces that were at work in The Thugs and The Receptionist? Or does it just represent a gut feeling of unease that can undermine a sense of purpose in our daily slog?

Eventually we get a feeling for the fissured friendships among the three, with the help of some flashbacks that give a bit of variety to the proceedings and allow Smith a moment of hilariously awkward drunken dancing. The personal backstories do bring us closer to the issue of how closely these characters (and, by extension, we in the audience) identify with their work.

But that theme, like The Typographer’s Dream as a whole, doesn’t play out conclusively. Instead, the play is most fruitful in its little observations about the ways each of the jobs in question shapes our views of truth. The geographer derides the arbitrary nature of national borders as “a line of ink from a Mont Blanc pen at a high level.” The stenographer emphasizes that his court reporting counts as the legal record of what’s been said, yet goes on at length about the challenges of accuracy. The typographer — appropriately the most eloquent of the trio — gives us gems on the symbolic power of design: “Italics can send the reader tilting into a dream world … A letter can be as narrow as a passage through the woods.” (This is, again, reminiscent of Futura, in which Harrison’s typography historian asserts that “Serifs are nostalgic for the movement of hands no longer capable of making them.”)

That aforementioned blog post notes that The Typographer’s Dream is one of Bock’s favorites, and it’s easy to see why: It’s the work of an artist fully engaged with his own idiosyncrasies. That it also is so engaging for the rest of us is a tribute to a job well done.

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