“The Language Archive.” It’s a title that conjures up dusty old libraries and esoteric and pedantic discussions between intellectuals.
It is also a little-known but wonderfully quirky play now running at Harlequin Productions in Olympia. Be it ever so odd and intelligent, it is not just a play for intellectuals. It is a play that is easily understood and that can touch hearts.
It begins as a comedy that — especially when Russ Holm as Resten and Pat Sibley as Alta first appear — is insanely funny.
But it does not remain solely comedic. It becomes a sweet and touching love story that looks at all sides of love and language and the barriers that prevent human beings from speaking from their hearts.
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George (Aaron Lamb) is a linguist who knows many languages, but has no words to speak to his wife, Mary (Caitlin McCown) when she says she is leaving him. The implication from Mary is that he has never been good at speaking to her. She’s not very good at communicating with him either. The best she can do is to leave strange notes to him in strange places. He calls her notes bad poetry.
George can say “I love you” in Esperanto, but he doesn’t know how to say it in English, at least not to anyone he actually cares about. Mary does not know how to speak from her heart either, nor does George’s assistant, Emma (Alyssa Kay). As it turns out, the only people who are able to communicate are Resten and Alta, the last two people in the world who can speak a dying (fictional) language. They can also speak in English, but only in anger, as they do in a great absurdist comical scene, because to them English is the language of anger.
Balancing somewhere between lyrical romance, fantasy and farce, “The Language Archive” does not attempt to portray reality. Actors step out of scenes to speak directly to the audience (the first time George does this, Mary says, “You know I can hear you, don’t you?”), and characters and scenes roll in on a revolving stage in a way that lends to the entire production the feel of a silent movie. Except, of course, it’s not silent; it is filled with words.
The five-person cast is splendid. Lamb plays George as a bumbling man with many uncomfortable tics who can wax eloquent when speaking of his love of languages, but who is tongue-tied when trying to speak to Mary and Emma. A veteran of many challenging roles at Harlequin and elsewhere, including leading roles in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and “The Mating Dance of the Werewolf,” Lamb displays skill at bringing a range of characters to life, as he skillfully does once again in this production.
Holm and Sibley play outsized characters with comical voices and gestures worthy of a Marx Brother or a member of Monty Python, not just as the very loveable Resten and Alta, but also as a baker and Zamenhof, a famous linguist who is actually dead (both played by Holm) and as a language instructor and a train conductor (Sibley).
The set by Jeannie Beirne is ingenious. The stage is absolutely bare except for a screen at the back wall. Furniture, appliances and other set pieces come in and out on a revolving stage, and lovely little watercolors of libraries, kitchens, train stations and other settings are projected against the back wall to simulate various settings. Looking something like New Yorker illustrations, these distinctive scenes were painted by Beirne.
There are also stagehands and probably dressers who are not listed in the program, but who do a monumentally heroic job backstage swapping out large set pieces and helping bring about quick costume changes, and doing it all in utter silence. These are the people who are seldom acknowledged but who are responsible for the magic and wonder of live theater. In this show, they work with stage manager Michelle Himlie and assistant stage manager Laurie Hubbs. I wish they could each and every one be brought out for a final curtain call.
Check Alec Clyaton’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
The Language Archive
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 28
Where: State Theater, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
Information: 360-786-0151; harlequinproductions.org