Review: ‘Where Words Once Were’ at The Kennedy Center

This past weekend, The Kennedy Center opened a newly commissioned show for young audiences from Playwright, Finegan Kruckemeyer. The piece titled, Where Words Once Were, touches on the often overlooked beauty and power of words. Words can be weapons of hate or messengers of love and a single word can have many different meanings depending on the context it is spoken in or, simply, who is using it. Kruckemeyer treats language as a central theme in the play and creates a touching tale of things lost but not forgotten and the imbued meaning behind the words we allow ourselves to say out-loud.

Where Words Once Were takes place in a world called “The City,”, where words are restricted as a result of war, and only 1000 words are able to be used. All other words are forbidden and, if a new word is introduced into what they call, “The Language,” another word must be stricken from the list and considered “erased.” Only officials are allowed pens and students are assigned a pen for school that must be returned at the end of the day. Violators of the rules are punished by losing all words. They may not speak the words and words may not be spoken to them so that they too, like the “erased” words, eventually fade from notice of the world.

Colin Hovde directed this original piece and its realization is simply stunning. The creative team, which includes Mary Keegan (Lighting Design), Matthew M. Nielson (Sound Design/Original Music), and Danielle Preston (Costume Design), presents the world of “the City” as a dream-like realm, with ethereal music and words appearing and disappearing to explain what cannot be said. With the clever use of projections by Designer Patrick Lord, and set design, by Andrew Cohen, Hovde beautifully conveys Kruckemeyer’s idea that language is fluid and full, and quite often it is the weight behind the words that carry true meaning.

Chris Lane. Photo: by Yassine El Mansouri.

Chris Lane. Photo: by Yassine El Mansouri.

Chris Lane plays Orhan, a young school boy who begins to question the necessity of “The Language” when he encounters a Girl (Alina Collins Maldonado), who is supposed to be forgotten. Orhan’s mother, played by Regina Aquino, is sympathetic to Orhan’s views.  She struggles herself with the constraints of communication in her friendship (and unspoken connection) with Tony Nam, an officer of “the City”, whose faith in the system is threatened with the discovery of the Girl who should not be noticed.  Nam and Aquino each play dual roles as Orhan’s classmates and, with Marcus Kyd as their Teacher, demonstrate the complexity of learning in a regulated society with limited language.

Kyd offers much needed comic relief to the otherwise somber show and fantastically illustrates the absurdities and contradictions of teaching in a society, which tries to regulate not only the deeds but the thoughts and ideas of its citizens.

Maldonado as the Girl, serves as a narrator for most of the play and guides the audience through the discovery in the potential and possibilities of words.  Her passion for language is infectious and the audience “ooh”s and “ahh”s as she reveals the mysterious and sometimes cryptic nature of palindromes and anagrams.

Alina Collins Maldonado. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Alina Collins Maldonado. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Aquino and Nam have a subtly underscored romance that offers many breath-taking moments, when the true meaning of the bland, common words they are allowed to use is projected onto the stage as they have a conversation.  The two performers have a palpable connection that allows the intention of the projections to be understood without the need of a verbal explanation.

Lane and Maldonado have a similarly tender scene where Lane tells the Girl what he is feeling by employing the use of homonyms to convey emotion beyond the limits of “the Language”, exchanging “flour” for “flowers” and “piece” for “peace”.

Where Words Once Were, commissioned by The Kennedy Center, is a meaningful tribute to language and can be appreciated by those with a love for words and any interest in human interaction. The show is advertised as best for children ages 9 and up, and I would offer that younger children may be lost in the overtly challenging nature of the script.  The play is visually striking but the effects may be lost on those unable to read the projections or to simultaneously comprehend the written and verbal messages.

In all, Kruckemeyer’s new creation is a gorgeous production and will serve well as an educational piece to young audiences, while also demonstrating the ingenuities in theater and the art of storytelling thanks to the fantastic creative team. Now, more than ever, it is important to truly understand the importance of things said and unsaid and Where Words Once Were is a model of the damage words can do and the healing that words can induce.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Where Words Once Were plays through Sunday, November 27th, 2016, in the Family Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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