By Barry Willis
Love and linguistics get a joint workout in Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, at Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond, through September 3.
One of the Bay Area’s oldest community theater venues, Masquers has been home to many compelling productions, notable among them last fall’s suberb Amelie, the Musical. An examination of the love life of an academic named George (Austine De Los Santos), The Language Archive takes its title from the laboratory where George works with his assistant Emma (Samantha Topacio), researching extinct and near-extinct languages. Tape recordings of the utterances of native speakers are kept in file boxes stacked to the ceiling in set designer John Hull’s austere interpretation of what such an archive might look like.
George has a problematic relationship with his wife Mary (Sarah Catherine Chan) who abruptly leaves him to start her own little bakery. The reasons for their difficulties are not quite clear in Cho’s script, nor in director Wynne Chan’s production. Emma is smitten with George, but not sufficiently for them to engage in any sort of meaningful long-term commitment. It’s all a maddening muddle for George, like his partial knowledge of disappearing languages or the fact that he never learned how to speak with his grandmother, the last practitioner of her own native tongue.
A “constructed” language invented by Polishin 1887, Esperanto figures prominently into the story line. With its primary vocabulary and grammar derived mostly from Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese), Esperanto was envisioned as an international or universal language to make communications easier among diverse nationalities. The language today has approximately 100,000 speakers worldwide.
Joseph Alvarado does a couple of nicely convincing turns in this show as Zamenhof, and is amazing as Resten, one of two remaining speakers of a disappearing tongue (“eloway”), along with his partner Alta (Pauli N. Amornkul). Like a botanist gathering seeds, George makes recordings of their speech in the hope of somehow preserving it—not that it will be anything other than an academic curiosity in a file box once Resten and Alta are gone. Armornkul is also very convincing as a no-nonsense Esperanto instructor, with Emma as her only student.
The story obliquely recalls David Ives’ The Universal Language (from his All in the Timing series) as well as Melissa Ross’s tightly-scripted An Entomologist’s Love Story that played to sold-out houses at San Francisco Playhouse in 2018, another tale about love among academic researchers. This reviewer found Cho’s contribution to the genre lacks the comedic brilliance of Ives and the poignancy of Ross, but with revisions has potential to be a truly compelling piece.
Alvarado and Amornkul are superb actors in multiple roles. Their younger castmates are still finding their sea legs onstage, but they give a solid effort. The sound designer isn’t credited in the playbill but deserves accolades for making the small stage at Masquers a believable railroad depot. Masquers too deserves accolades for taking risks with little-known plays, some of which, like tiny acorns, can grow into mighty oaks.
|Production||The Language Archive|
|Written by||Julia Cho|
|Directed by||Wynne Chan|
|Producing Company||Masquers Playhouse|
|Production Dates||Thru Sept 3, 2023|
|Production Address||105 Park Place
Pt. Richmond, CA
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?||----|