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?

Words without people mean little, and four other main characters weave through The Language Archive, leading their lives in their own alliances and disputes with the tyranny of words. Mary (Nikki Weaver), George’s wife, is inexplicably mournful, given to weeping fits and leaving small handwritten notes of puzzling intention in his slippers, his books, his morning coffee. Emma (Foss Curtis), George’s assistant at the language lab, slowly discovers that she is deeply in love with him, and doesn’t know what to do about it. And the crack comedy team of Victor Mack and Sharonlee McLean play Resten and Alta, a devotedly squabbling couple who are the last surviving speakers of the Elloway tribal language. They fight in English, because it is a harsh language, and speak of love and other things that matter in the gentler cadences of Elloway.

Sharonelee McLean and Victor Mack: the Bickersons, in two languages. Photo: Brud Giles

Speaking of love is very much what The Language Archive is about, and George, poor academic expert that he is, simply doesn’t know how to go about it. He seems trapped inside his brain, so devoted to analysis that feeling seems to drip through him like water from a sieve. In Watanabe’s comic and eventually poignant performance he’s a precise man, expert in his field but a bit obtuse about life as other people live it. This expert in the structures of languages doesn’t understand subtext, the nonverbal communications that give mere words their emotional context. He’s no automaton. He’s simply buried his emotional life so deeply below his academic veneer that he constantly misunderstands things. And that leads to a rip in his soul.

Watanabe deftly makes George seem obstinately thick-witted yet also strangely endearing, a bit of a joke and an almost tragic figure. He’s coming off a Broadway run in Allegiance, the recently closed musical about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans starring George Takei and co-written by former Portlander Marc Acito. His four costars are among Portland’s finest, and under Baer’s direction they combine sharp comic timing with an emotional undercurrent that brings the deeper meanings home. The production is in Northwest Portland’s CoHo Theatre (the Playhouse’s home space in Northeast Portland’s King neighborhood is undergoing a major renovation), and the cozy CoHo space works well. Its tall ceilings allow scenic and lighting designer Daniel Meeker to create a towering set of shelves lined with tape after tape of George’s recordings of lost and disappearing languages, physical evidence of a career spent amassing trees while largely missing the forest. Alison Heryer’s costumes are appropriate and attractive, and play a significant role in allowing Mack and McLean to move swiftly in and out of a variety of supporting roles.

Foss Curtis and Victor Mack, pointing the way. Photo: Brud Giles

The Language Archive has a decidedly whimsical side, and one of its great appeals is Cho’s felicity at mixing up theatrical styles and approaches. A little bit realist, a little bit fantasist, it gives itself the freedom to fly to the places where those subtextual meanings come alive. Odd things happen, among them an encounter at a train stop with L.L. Zamenhof, the Polish ophthalmologist who invented the utopian language of Esperanto and who died in 1917, which on a strictly realistic level would make this meeting impossible. No matter: hints of magical realism touch this script, a connection perhaps encouraged by the presumed Central or South American homeland of Alta and Resten and their Ellowayan tongue.

Cho’s hyperreality allows the actors to flit from something close to farce to moments when their emotions open up and plunge them into deep and lovely and often lonely places. A few reviewers in New York and elsewhere have looked on all of this as a bit twee, which strikes me as a failure of the imagination. The Language Archive is a love story, really, and if it lacks a happily-ever-after it gets to the mysteries of the thing, the ways that love reaches out, stumblingly, and connects or misses the mark. It is a sentimental play only to those who believe that speaking about hope and happiness is sentimental. To others, it simply echoes life – and isn’t that, ultimately, the goal of language? This is a play about endings, yes, but in the end it is also about a beginning. Or a starter, that magical blend of yeast and enzyme that is essential to the making of great bread, and which plays a brief but pivotal role in the story. Don’t ask how it fits into the plot. It’s there, and it works, providing an aroma of pleasure and (yes) love that mere words can’t describe.

Nikki Weaver and the bread of life. Photo: Brud Giles


Portland Playhouse’s The Language Archive continues through June 11 at CoHo Theater. Ticket and schedule information here.

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