Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Language Archive
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Lilies of the Field, A Jumping Off Point, and The Guthrie's Henriad in Repertory:Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V

Nick Menzhuber, Wini Froelich, and Joe Swanson
Photo by Alex Wohlhueter
There really is a Language Archive, located at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the city of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Researchers there study language acquisition, development, and usage, formal and casual speech patterns, language diversity, multilingualism, and sign languages. Vast audio and video files document languages from around the world, with special attention to endangered and under-studied languages. I believe it is a very serious place.

Then there is The Language Archive, Julia Cho's play centered around George (Joe Swanson), a linguist who works at a language archive in an unnamed American city, who is obsessed with the looming extinction of many languages around the world. Theatre Pro Rata has mounted the quirky and thought-provoking play in a polished and wholly satisfying production.

George rattles off the numbers and is deeply troubled by them, as he informs us early on: "It's estimated that every two weeks a language dies. I don't know about you, but this statistic moves me far more than any statistics on how many animals die or people die in a given time, in a given place." It's not that George is so cold a fish when it comes to animals or people, but that he sees each language as the chassis of a culture, a way of life, a world. He believes that when a language dies, the world it animates will follow.

Actually, George is rather a cold fish in regard to people, though not on purpose. In spite of his passion for languages, he has lost the language–if he ever had it–to communicate with his wife Mary (Megan Kim) so much that he is blindsided by her dispassionate announcement that she is leaving him. To be fair, Mary is not so much better a communicator with George than he is with her. Her attempts are in the form of cryptic notes scrawled on scraps of paper left for him to find in random spots. Sample: "Husband or throw pillow? Wife or hot-water bottle? Marriage or an old cardigan? Love or explaining how to use the remote control?"

Her messages, albeit indirect, are obvious (actually, somewhat brilliant) assessments of their marriage, but George has no words to respond. His heart experiences a desperate desire for her to stay, conjuring "If you leave, my heart will be a city in ruins," but he has no access to these words. His language is lodged in another part of his being, which instead tells Mary that these notes (which she denies writing) are a sign she is having a mental crisis and needs help. He makes no effort to grasp the nature of that crisis, let alone the part he plays in it. Likewise, at the Language Archive, George is unable to decode clear signals–nonverbal though they be–from his assistant Emma (Eva Gemlo) that she harbors strong feelings of tenderness for him.

Emma herself doesn't recognize these feelings until unleashing them during a lesson with her Esperanto teacher. Esperanto is a language invented by a Polish doctor named L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 in an attempt to create one language for all mankind, thereby ending misunderstandings and fostering a world without war. It is ironic, for Emma is learning Esperanto in order to impress George, yet neither can really communicate with the other any language.

By this time, Alta (Wini Froelich) and Resten (Nick Menzhuber) have arrived. They are an aging couple dressed in a sort of Alpine-Balkan-mix of attire (in clever costume designs by Mandi Johnson) who are the last two surviving speakers of Elloway, a fictional language. George has flown Alta and Resten to the U.S. to record them conversing in Elloway before the language perishes along with them. No sooner are they seated in George's lab than they start squabbling with considerable vitriol–and in English. George is aghast at their demeanor, even more so because they are not speaking in Elloway. They explain that Elloway has no vocabulary for anger, so when they are angry they revert to English. For them to converse in Elloway, they must put aside their anger, which seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Their arguments are actually quite funny, showing Cho to have sharp comedic chops, but for George their speaking in English is a blow upon a bruise, as it falls atop Mary's leaving him.

Meanwhile, Mary, having taken off without a plan, meets a mysterious baker who helps her find her way. Emma, with the help of her Esperanto teacher and an encounter with the long dead L.L. Zamenhof himself, begins to acquire the ability to use language as a means of becoming fully realized. Eventually even Alta and Resten find their way back to their authentic native tongue. George, though, continues to struggle making sense of it all, as he glorifies language while knowing nothing about communication.

Director Nicole Marie Wilder clearly understands communication. She has staged The Language Archive through the ears and eyes of a storyteller, as if we are gathered around a fire while she unspools this yarn, to our delight. The weird thing about it is, the more far-fetched The Language Archive becomes, the more it makes sense. Preposterous coincidences and flights of fancy seem to wear away the barriers that have kept Mary, Emma, and eventually even George from grasping that language is just words unless understanding is attached to them.

Five aces appear on the stage, bringing The Language Archive to vivid life. Swanson is perfect as the perplexed George, his capacity for engaging life locked out of the intellectual tower in which he resides. Swanson's physical response, with shoulders and eyebrows, to the baffling behaviors that surround him, gives the character the air of a tragic clown. Gemlo silently radiates beams of Emma's love for George, even before she begins to examine her feelings. She then persuasively moves Emma through a transition from self-denial to self-actualization. Kim portrays Mary's vacuous persona, worn away by years of scraping against George's unyielding surface, then reveals Mary blossoming, not as a giant bouquet, but as a simple bud, finding its singular, satisfying place in the world.

Froelich and Menzhuber are perfectly matched as the bickering Ellowayans, Alta and Resten. They have great timing and make superb use of their accented English (credit to dialect coach Gillian Constable) to embellish their hilarious sparring. When the tables turn on them and they recover their capacity for tenderness, they convey a folksy warmth that lifts the audience's hearts. Froelich is also winning as Emma's Esperanto teacher whose approach to instruction makes her closer to a life coach, while Menzhuber is moving as a despondent baker who, through serendipity, turns Mary's life around.

The play is staged on a versatile set designed by M Lefler, crowded with piles of books everywhere, which sometimes serve as places for the characters to sit, inundating the world with the artifacts of printed words. There is one clubby chair used by George, at times, for rumination, well suited to George's "clubby" persona. Emmet Kowler's lighting design helps to shape the mood of each scene, while Topher Pirkl's sound design assures that this play about language is clearly conveyed.

Theatre Pro Rata has a good track record of finding seldom-mounted plays and giving them top notch productions. The Language Archive adds to that record. One senses that everyone involved in this production invested it with thought and took from it joy. Both of those qualities–thought and joy–come across to the audience, leaving us with a platter of heady ideas and uplifted spirits.

The Language Archive, presented by Theatre Pro Rata, continues through May 4, 2024, at Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-234-7135 or visit

Playwright: Julia Cho; Director: Nicole Marie Wilder; Set Design: MJ Leffler; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Emmet Kowler; Sound Design: Topher Pirkl; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Assistant Set Designer: Antonia Perez; Dialect Coach: Gillian Constable; Assistant Set Designer: Sarah Schniepp; Directing Observer: Ankita Ashrit; Stage Manager: Clara Costello.

Cast: Wini Froelich (Alta/Esperanto Teacher), Eva Gemlo (Emma), Megan Kim (Mary), Nick Menzhuber (Resten/Mr. Baker), Joe Swanson (George).