Would you really want to live in a world without words? Take a moment and think about this. A perfect understanding between people; never a miscommunication, no more terrorism or wars. But a life without words, without verbal communication; would that not simply erase all language from human history and with it all of human culture and eventually history itself? Such a notion begs to be explored and only the medium of Science Fiction could do it justice. In a new hybrid genre, Venus Theatre presents the world premier of Gift of Forgotten Tongues – a science-fiction, thriller-drama written by Fengar Gael. Directed by Deborah Randall, this production has intense visual aesthetics and delves into the uncharted waters of human evolution as only a science-fiction piece can.
Gael’s story is unique, an enticing idea that really grips the audience and draws you into the tale as it unwinds. While there is confusion aplenty as the story builds, it is the compelling sort of confusion that makes you take interest, leaving you with a burning desire to untangle what you’re experiencing until the result is revealed. The perfect balance of futuristic technology blended with human ethics and morals comes together in this play. Rich characters and an exhilarating plot keep the story compelling for the audience, its one weak spot being the ending. While it is mostly conclusive, it happens a bit abruptly and a little anti-climactically after the great buildup to get there; though it does leave you wondering, your mind working in overdrive to process everything that has occurred.
Set Designer Amy Rhodes transforms the intimate tennis-court space of the Playshack into a startlingly stark and futuristic facility. The observation deck is little more than scaffolding and a chair but feels as if its several stories above the containment pit thanks to Rhodes’ use of harsh whites throughout her design. The containment pit looks exactly like something that might be encountered inside of a secret laboratory, the glass floor with green glow lights beneath augmenting the surreal aspects of its existence.
The visual aesthetic is twofold in this production; the first coming from the Videography designed by Kristen Anchor. Director Deborah Randall takes select segments of the script and shoots them as film, projecting them during the production rather than performing them live. This enhances the science-fiction feel of the performance as well as provides an unusual visual addition for the audience to witness; the films are presented in grainy black and white as if they were difficult to come by, blending the realities of the past and future together in the present. Using this approach, especially to the scenes that happen with Fernelle and the ‘mutes’ toward the end of the play is a much more intense approach than would be if they were simply staging it on the opposite side of the quaint stage.
Choreographer Maria Lynn Yaffe brings the other half of the visual beauty to the show, using languid full-body routines to express the existence of the ‘mutes.’ Nearly never apart the two mutes (played by Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly and Matthew Marcus) have their own body language which involves a series of intricately intertwined fluid movements. The effect is stunning, albeit creepy, the way their limbs meld around one another as if they were never actually two separate beings. Yaffe’s choreography is multi-dimensional, allowing them to move in all positions, horizontally, vertically, and freely all over as if their bodies were not restricted by gravity or other reigning laws of physics. It is easy to get lost in their motions and one could spend the entire production just watching the way their bodies weave together. Yaffe’s design is reminiscent of DNA coiling together, a symbolic tribute to the fact that the DNA of the mutes has drastically evolved and mutated.
The story focuses around Fernelle (Kelsey Painter) and Felix (George Tamerlani). Painter plays the genius linguist savant while Tamerlani plays her alcoholic father. Painter and Tamerlani at first do not interact but rather speak in tandem in places while existing on separate planes. This directorial choice is an intense way to introduce the dynamic of their dysfunctional relationship but speaks volumes on Randall’s understanding of the script.
Tamerlani splits his character; the first being the idealistic poet who is liberally, albeit metaphorically, bathed in his liquored ignorance. The other half of his character is the worrisome and overprotective father, which only surfaces when things grow out of his control in the second half of the production. His portrayal and balance of these two halves of a whole leads to intriguing interactions between both Painter and Director Deborah Randall’s character of Doctor Weaver.
Painter is a pistol right from the off, but is not without a deeply dynamic duality. Starting off as pacing ball of frenetic energy with a bitter tongue and sniping attitude, Painter embodies the edgy savant with a cataclysmic ease. It is apparent to everyone that her character is deeply troubled, but her gift of 1,000 tongues is fascinating. Listening to Painter ramble off the various languages her character knows fluently has you almost convinced that she knows most of them personally. She creates an abrasive exterior, especially when interacting with Doctor Weaver; their conversations little more than terse insults traded over strained airspace. But once she becomes involved with the mutes there is a softer side of Painter’s character that burbles to the surface; something serene and tranquil that possesses a global understanding of language and existence.
Randall, as the stoic and monotonous Doctor Weaver, creates a rigid character profile of this woman whose entire life is driven and ruled by science. The character lacks charisma, everything she says and does from the way in which she speaks to the way in which she walks about the space being very formulaic. There is a glimpse of humanity beneath her almost robotic personality, late in Act II when she’s allowed to let her guard down for just a moment. Randall does an exceptional job of balancing this humanity against her imperviously stringent character. Her interactions with the Fernelle show subtle hints of emotions as she slowly grows to care for the girl.
Gael’s work is vivid and imaginative, her frequent use of alliteration in the various segments of dialogue blends a poetic essence into this very metallic and futuristic feel of the play. Many of the initial characterizations are created by other characters speaking about them – a trait often used in fiction literature; once again creating a hybrid of fictional devices in this play.
Gift of Forgotten Tongues is an edgy new work well-worth investigating, especially if you enjoy science-fiction.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.