The World of a “Language”
Why “The Language Archive” needs an abstract, metaphorical set
For a show that’s so much about the power of words, the Roundabout’s production of The Language Archive is certainly bursting with objects.
Julia Cho’s play follows a linguist named George who records dying languages but can’t communicate with his wife. But it’s not just words that tell the story. The design team enhances both the literal and figurative parts of the show by creating a rich, tactile world.
Take Neil Patel’s set design: It’s visible from the moment we enter the theatre, and it instantly tells us we’re in a metaphorical space. Behind a heavy wooden table, rows of polished-wood shelves tower to the top of the proscenium, and they’re bursting with things. There are tapes and recording devices like you might expect to see in a language archive, but there are also microscopes, globes, lanterns, and statues. They suggest the collected memories of the cultures George preserves.
Patel and director Mark Brokaw knew they wanted this effect when they worked on the play this spring at South Coast Repertory in California. “When we did it the first time, it became clear to us that it needed a high level of abstraction and theatricality,” Patel says. “It had to be an archive of lost things, of lost relationships.”
He adds, “It felt like this play was trying to do something more than just tell a story in a naturalistic way. We felt like you shouldn’t go away from the archive and suddenly be at a train station set. Every object in the play has to fit into this rubric of the archive.”
After she leaves him, for instance, George’s wife ends up working in a bakery, and during early run-throughs at the Roundabout, a fairly realistic bakery was rolled on. “The props people made these beautiful little racks for the bread,” Patel recalls. “When they came out, Mark immediately realized, ‘No, that’s wrong. It shouldn’t be too much like a bread shop.” Now, Mary stands in front of tall shelves that are stacked with neatly arranged loaves. “It’s like an archive of bread,” Patel says.
This approach extends the metaphor of Cho’s writing: If the entire production feels like an archive, then it suggests that the play itself, the thing we’re all experiencing together in the room, is an archive, too. The play is creating a unique language, a unique world that’s going to die when the lights come up.
Of course, if the set isn’t functional, that’s a worthless idea, and Patel had to tweak his design to suit the practical demands of producing the show. “We went through a long period in tech and previews of pruning objects [off the shelves,] taking things out and putting them back in,” he says. “You’d watch the play, and you’d start to notice, ‘Okay, there’s too many globes. Or during this scene, over the shoulder of this character, that object is too interesting. It’s distracting.”
Meanwhile, other parts of the design needed to be as literal as the shelves were metaphorical. Throughout the show, George interviews a married couple who are the last speakers of a language from a fictional European country. The pair keeps bickering over the wife’s cooking, and she constantly shoves a Tupperware container full of vile-looking goop in his face. For Patel, that Tupperware is vital to understanding the couple.
“It has that quality of that kind of random American object that someone from another country might have,” he says. “They’ve held onto it, and they’ve washed and used it too many times. In their costumes, they have all that folkloric detail, but they’re carrying around plastic bags of Tupperware. It just seemed right.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor