Last Friday and Saturday nights, the CenterStage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance filled with parents, pupils and professors as they congregated to see Cap and Bells’ first production of the spring semester, The Language Archive, a play written by Julia Cho and directed by Sophie Montgomery ’14.
The play, though somewhat awkwardly executed, was mostly delightful and decidedly well cast. It tells the story of George (Justin Jones ’16), a brilliant academic of extinct or endangered languages. George, though articulate in many tongues, is not at all so in the language of love; he has an incapacitating and inhuman inability to communicate the contents of his heart to his wife, Mary (Paige Peterkin ’16). Despite Mary’s attempts to show George how to speak this ever-troubling romance language, neither she nor George’s assistant, Emma (Natalie Johnson ’13), is able help George with his fluency. Thus, George is immediately presented as a frigid and – despite his heightened intellectual capacity – emotionally unintelligent man.
In a desperate cry to relay her unhappiness and make her husband aware of his shortcomings, the weepy Mary leaves what George describes as “bad poetry,” in the form of small notes, scattered around the house for him to find by happenstance. The audience cringed as George read the notes aloud: “She knew they both saw the fragility of their marriage when he suggested ballroom dancing;” “Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot water bottle? Marriage or an old cardigan? Love or explaining how to use a remote control?” Promptly after denying that she has anything to do with the verses, Mary announces that she is leaving George. Despite his panic and heartbreak, George cannot find the language to express his anguish; the linguist is left speechless.
Jones and Peterkin gave stellar performances as they made audience members visibly uncomfortable at the cold, torturously tense relationship between their characters. That said, the dialogue of the play, though exquisitely written, had a distractingly artificial quality that made it difficult for the audience to become truly invested in the characters. That is, until we are introduced to Alta (Jenny Helinek ’15) and Resten (Ben Hoyle ’15).
Alta and Resten are the last living speakers of Elloway, a language that at its creation, “sounded exactly like song.” The elderly couple arrives at George’s lab, the language archive, after agreeing to help George preserve their soon-to-be dead tongue. However, upon their arrival, the scholar and his assistant are distressed to discover that their subjects refuse to speak Elloway. After a tiff prompted by Resten’s ungentlemanly act of snagging the window seat on the plane, the two will only speak in English, as they deem their native language too precious and beautiful to express hateful words.
Helinek and Hoyle made an unabashedly enchanting duo, stealing our hearts the moment they appeared on stage in costumes that looked like they were designed by Maria from The Sound of Music. The audience delighted in their perfect delivery of idiomatically funky English as they engaged in a hilariously heated, Frank-and-Estelle-Costanza-esque argument ending in their mutual casting of an excommunicatory “ghost curse” on one another. After Resten is hospitalized due to some undefined, terminal condition and he and his wife settle their dispute, Alta admits that the curse, though said to be irreversible, requires a religious official of the Ellowa community to be effectively cast. While at Resten’s bedside in a tear-jerking exchange with Emma, Alta, in reference to the curse, quips: “If you say it in English, everyone knows you don’t really mean it.”
Meanwhile, in an effort to impress George, Emma struggles to learn the universal yet syntactically strange language of Esperanto from a quirky and provocative language instructor (Carina Zox ’16). Her teacher, who believes that her inability to master Esperanto stems from love-induced blockage, prompts her to divulge her passion to her favorite emotional illiterate, George. Before she can, however, she winds up at Mary’s bakery – a thriving little establishment entrusted to Mary by a disillusioned baker (Robbie Amster ’14) that she meets at the train station – and in a heroic display of selflessness, upon returning to the archive with a loaf of her finest cranberry nut bread, she discloses Mary’s whereabouts to George, who hurries to win his wife back. Unsurprisingly, however, he is unable to meet Mary’s standards of what constitutes a good romantic reveal and therefore is never able to disarm her.
The small, talented cast breathed life into the characters of a play whose main relationships strike an ever-charming balance between unbearably callous and overwhelmingly charming. The Language Archive left the audience both frustrated by George’s irking incapacities and utterly moved by the Ellowans’ poetic bond. More importantly, it imparted a decisive lesson to the rather vocal students of the College: Sometimes what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it.