“I love you.” This simple, universal concept becomes one of the most multi-faceted phrases in all languages in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s recent production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive. What do we say? How and when do we say it? What does it mean? Words and meaning intertwine with complexity as this production investigates exactly how one person can reach another.
Devoted to the preservation of a dying language, linguist George (Irungu Mutu) struggles to record its last two speakers, a married couple from an almost extinct culture who refuse to speak to one another. All the while, George can’t find the words to reconnect with his depressed wife Mary (Julianna Zinkel) in an effort to save their own marriage. Julia Cho weaves an elegant tale with a lyrical style and grace where daydream seems to become more common than reality. Director Adam Immerwahr deftly explores the heights and depths of the many human emotions at stake, handling with great care the complex relationship with reality.
What Mutu and Zinkel create is a marriage obviously on the rocks with a deep affection in their past, but are still at their best when separated from each other, a balance more difficult to strike than it sounds. Keith Baker and Jo Twiss play the warring couple who speak the precious language to be archived with an explosive energy, providing a majority of the production’s lightness and humor. Each then takes on a few other minor characters to round out the story. Tiffany Villarin’s Emma is a wide-eyed mystery for most of the action, but finally gets a chance to play out a bit of unrequited love as the story unfolds.
While unfolding, Cho’s style manages to unite a wide net of events into a meaningful throughline, but lags a bit in the middle. After a rush of introducing the various love stories, the narrative wades through a thick section of allegory before returning to its stimulating inter-connectedness. Immerwahr injects plenty of energy into his telling throughout, and once the production reached its last few magical moments, I wished more of that enchantment would have been infused throughout.
Jefferey Van Velsor’s epic green scenic design creates a large, intricate backdrop for an intimate play, while Paul Kilsdonk’s lighting design helps to quickly jump between times, locations, and daydreams. Sound Designer Karin Graybash adds the complex soundtrack of doors and bells needed to make each scene feel present, and Kristin Isola’s costumes are whimsically simple yet definitive, especially for those who play multiple characters.
The Language Archive carefully dissects how and why we care for each other, tenderly examining the bittersweet complexities of love between two people. With a wink toward its own loving fairy tale elements, Bristol Riverside Theatre production has plenty to say about what we say, and how or why we say it.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission.