Theatre Raleigh’s Where Words Once Were: A Play About Language and Its Absences, written by Finegan Kruckemeyer and directed Noah Putterman, offers a fast-moving, captivating discussion of an important topic: the importance of language as a component of human existence.
George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-four has given us the term Newspeak — the word for the language of the dystopian world in that vision of the future, a world so restrictive and domineering of individual expression and life that could only be described in its own terminology as “double-plus-ungood.”
Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Where Words Once Were paints a similarly bleak picture of a society in which the powers-that-be restrict the use of language, thereby restricting life itself. The setting of the play is “The City,” a place where “The Language” has been pared down to a mere 1,000 words. All words other than these are illegal, and anyone caught speaking illegal words could quite possibly suffer the ultimate punishment — becoming “invisible” due to being forbidden to speak, to be spoken to, or even to be spoken about; indeed, even their name is revoked from these offenders.
Any time that a new word becomes necessary, an existing word must be purged. In case we are unable to grasp the implications of the severity of this process, we are given an example that is indicative of the values of The City. The new word in question is needed to describe a new technology that harnesses solar power as a military weapon. The new word: photosubmissionization. The word that must be expunged: beautiful. And the idea previously conveyed in the word beautiful is now to be expressed with the phrase “most good.” The ramifications are not belabored, but the inherent cost to the quality of life is easily intuited, and it invokes an echo of the Orwellian term double-plus-ungood.
Much of the background of the story is supplied by “The Girl,” a narrator that we soon learn is one of the silenced, invisible people. (Curiously, she is the most articulate of all the characters.) Through her, we learn that The City had begun imposing the limits on language as a means of protecting the people and keeping them safe. Qualia Akili Holder-Cozart is quite charismatic in this role. We found ourselves hanging on her every word and looking forward to her next appearance.
The crippled nature of communication in The City is most clearly demonstrated by interactions between Alli (the baker played by Tyanna West) and Isaac (a city official played by Liam Yates). As they speak to each other, their words are terse and stilted, as though they are carefully avoiding becoming overly expressive and familiar. Both West and Yates effortlessly convey a sense of underlying mutual attraction and affection. The nature of this relationship is critical because, as a city official, Isaac is expected to enforce The City’s rules, rules that cannot be bent or broken without serious consequences. Indeed, we are told: “The City does not change its rules; The City is its rules.”
The relationship between Alli and Orhan (her son played by Vincent Bland, Jr.) reveals an optimism in the face of the draconian restrictions of The City. Bland and Tyanna West create a mother-son chemistry in which the pair’s mutual respect and playful affection is immediately apparent. Indeed, it is the optimism exuded by these characters that keeps hope alive in the otherwise bland existence of the inhabitants of The City.
We are also afforded with a view of The City’s educational system. Kiernan (Matthew Harvey) and Eila (Christine Lane), along with Orhan, are subjected to the harsh domination imposed by their no-nonsense Teacher (Sean McCracken). The school scenes are punctuated by synchronized set-changes, executed with near-military precision, and the regimentation continues in the scene. McCracken creates a strict character that could easily have appeared in a Charles Dickens novel (think Thomas Gradgrind and Mr. M’Choakumchild in Hard Times). (McCracken also creates a second distinct character: the Father of the Girl.) As classmates, Harvey and Lane play well off each other.
Scenic designer Tim Domack has created an appropriately hum-drum-looking setting, but he has laced it with plenty of “Easter eggs” (if you will) that play up the theme of the importance of language.
Costume designer Emily Johns has clothed the characters in “fashions” to be expected in the bland world of The City. And music (sometimes ominous) and appropriately real “City noises” are supplied by sound designer Eric Collins.
A few interesting points that reiterate the value of language to our lives:
There is a discussion of palindromes and other joys that can be found in words.
There is alliteration in the title: Where Words Once Were.
The students recite a bland rhyme when they return their writing utensil at the end of class: “This is my pen; I use it and then, I return it again, amen.” (The implications inherent in the inclusion of the word “amen” should not be lost.)
From the Department of Picky-Picky: The ending of the play is satisfying; but it seemed a little overly rushed and, perhaps, too neatly packaged. But this is a very minor gripe about an otherwise fine script.
Playing at the Kennedy Theatre (at Raleigh, NC’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts) through Sunday, April 7th, Where Words Once Were runs a very quick 70 minutes (without intermission) and, as advertised, is appropriate for children age nine and up.
SECOND OPINION: March 25th Cary, NC RDU on Stage review by Grace Niesel: https://rduonstage.com/2019/03/25/review-where-words-once-were-leaves-young-audiences-with-more-questions-than-answers/ and March 14th video podcast interview with director Noah Putterman, Qualia Holder-Cozart (Girl), and Vincent Bland (Orhan), conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2019/03/14/video-where-words-once-were-is-a-cross-between-the-hunger-games-and-shakespeare/; March 25th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/03/theatre-raleighs-where-words-once-were-is-innovative-and-thought-provoking/; March 24th Raleigh, NC Indy Week review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9339; and March 18th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Sarah Lindenfeld Hall for “Go Ask Mom”: https://www.wral.com/theatre-raleigh-s-next-family-show-where-words-once-were-set-in-dystopian-time/18265998/.
Theatre Raleigh presents WHERE WORDS ONCE WERE: A Play About Language and Its Absences at 7 p.m. March 29, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 30, 2 p.m. March 31, 7 p.m. 7 p.m. April 5, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. April 6, and 2 p.m. April 7 in the in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
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SHOW: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/family-series/, https://www.facebook.com/events/247143619571152/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/where-words-once-were-theatre-raleigh.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5dk1pO97m8, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk1k50vchHI, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yaMvFwMB_M.
2019 FAMILY SERIES: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/family-series/.
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NOTE: Student groups only may e-mail email@example.com about the availability of 10 a.m. weekday student matinees.
Where Words Once Were: A Play About Language and Its Absences (2016 Washington, DC and 2018 New York, NY play): http://finegankruckemeyer.com/works/young/where-words-once-were/ (official web page) and http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/KRTBA (The Kennedy Center).
Finegan Kruckemeyer (Irish-born Australian dramatist): http://finegankruckemeyer.com/ (official website) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finegan_Kruckemeyer (Wikipedia).
Noah Putterman (Pacific Grove, CA director): https://noahputterman.com/ (official website) and https://www.facebook.com/nputterman (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.