Review: City Lights’ ‘The Language Archive’ strong in its unity

George (Jeffrey Bracco) and Mary (Lisa Mallette) struggle to communicate in City Lights' "The Language Archive." (Photo by Mike Ko)
George (Jeffrey Bracco) and Mary (Lisa Mallette) struggle to communicate in City Lights’ “The Language Archive.” (Photo by Mike Ko)

George is a somewhat awkward gent. He bumbles around his cluttered office, a room filled with boxes and boxes, and most importantly, an old reel-to-reel tape machine. This machine holds some of the greatest linguistic histories of civilization and the way people have verbally communicated over the years.

So naturally George could not have been more thrilled when the opportunity arose to interview two old folks who are some of the last to speak their native language. What was supposed to be a recording session full of historical moments turned into a bickering session, complete with some vicious barb-trading and an all-out aerial assault on the wife’s cooking.

City Lights Theatre Company’s production of the charming play “The Language Archive” fits perfectly in the quirky theatre space in downtown San Jose. The production, solidly directed with great pace and tone by Virginia Drake and featuring some wonderful acting performances, brings forth a compelling storyline that makes the audience look closely at the words we use and the way we use them.

George (an effectively awkward Jeffrey Bracco) just can’t get out of his own way. In the ways of languages, he is a savant. He can quote esoteric facts about languages and their death cycles, but wife Mary (Lisa Mallette) is left to leave him little notes around the house in order to communicate at all.

Mary strives to connect, but he is hopeless to see what she needs. There is also another crush towards George, this one coming from his assistant Emma (Kendall Callaghan). She adores him from a few feet away, but because of his aloof nature, she might as well admire him from the next country that is due to lose its language in two weeks time.

Ironically, connection is learned in the form of a variety of characters played with gravitas and precision by Deb Anderson and Ben Ortega. Alta (Anderson) and Reston (Ortega) yell and scream in their native (fictional) language of Elloway, yet find soft, tender moments where nothing is understood in a literal sense, but everything is clear based on the observances of touch, warmth and tone.

Drake’s direction is at its finest when it clearly guides the actors on the path of truth and discovery. There is warmth and humor in Alta’s and Reston’s discovery that age is catching up to them. Moments such as these advocate strongly for Cho’s truth, which is all about looking at the world as a language we never stop learning.

The play certainly takes on some fantastical tones, which strays away from the style, but is effective nonetheless. A dream meeting with L.L. Zamenhof, the inventor of the language Esperanto, further throws Emma into a world of discovery.

One of the productions flaws is, even though there is an emotional distance between characters, there were certainly moments where it felt the actors could have gone further and raised the stakes. The feeling of loss was not always palpable, as it should have been in various moments.

Still this did not take away from what were very solid acting performances. Both Anderson and Ortega were on stage for many of the plays best moments. Whether it was animated and heated discourse about the infamous nature of Alta’s cooking, or a gentle explanation of bread from Ortega’s character (reminiscent of the brilliant
speech about the metaphor of grapes in the film “Sideways”), their moments together were effective. Callaghan brought about a youthful and precocious maturity that helped her understand what true love is all about. Mallette hit her stride effectively when her character was at peace in a bakery, and Bracco played his character with the right amount of emotional distance. Throw in a solid set by Ron Gasparinetti, and the most brilliant soundscape I’ve ever heard in the City Lights space by George Psarras, and you have a play beautifully unified.

“The Language Archive” allows its audience to ask themselves what it takes to communicate effectively. But what it comes down to is not the words we use, but what we intend to do with those words. If we listen to the words we use with more than our ears, everything else has a chance to be a part of the conversation.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Lights Theatre Company presents “The Language Archive”
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Virginia Drake
The Word: Solid piece about the words we use and how we use them. Anderson and Ortega lead strong acting performances among the tight cast.
Through June 29th
City Lights Theatre
529 S. Second St., San Jose, CA
City Lights Theatre
529 S. Second St., San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $17 – $35
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

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