By Miodrag Stanisavljevic
Translated by Zoran Paunovic
Directed by Jacqueline Stone
Produced by TUTA Theatre Chicago
Sure, the story’s a bit of a slog, but did you see what they were wearing?!
Once upon a time, in a studio theater hidden away on Chicago’s Near West Side, a local storefront theatre troop decided to put on a play. Entitled The Silent Language, the little play had come very far and crossed many oceans and was, in fact, rather worn for wear. Yet the storefront troop was quite determined and, like water from a stone, managed to draw from the little play what magic and whimsy they could. Though sad to say, the little play was not as strong as they…
Ugh. Enough of that. I’m being cheeky. But only in the spirit of the occasion. For in all seriousness, TUTA Theatre Chicago, under the direction of Artistic Director Jacqueline Stone, has brought us the U.S. premiere of a play by Serbian playwright Miodrag Stanisavljevic. Written in 1981, it’s apparently based on an even older Serbian folk tale called Nemusti Jezik (don’t ask me how to pronounce it).
For the tragically gauche not up-to-date on their obscure Eastern European folklore [cue exasperated hipster eye roll], here’s the rundown on The Silent Language. Gasho (Max Lotspeich), a poor servant boy living in one of those quaint villages found only in fairy tales, agrees one day to give a talking snake a ride home (cuz who wouldn’t?). And in exchange for such kindness, the snake’s mother somewhat reluctantly gives Gasho the gift of the “silent language”—a kind of sixth sense—which allows him to understand and communicate with the wind and the animals.
And thus opened to magical new worlds, Gasho sets off on an adventure to save his own Rapunzel-like princess (Caroly Malloy)—rocking blonde dreads, no less—from an evil Elf (Aaron Lawson) and the uber-creepy Boogeyman (Sean Ewert). Along the way he meets many a remarkable character—including a Sorceress (Laurie Larsen) who milks three-letter words for their incantatory powers, a Cheshire cat-like Mocking Witch (Angela Bullard) whose verbal tricks keep Gasho spinning in circles, and the flesh-hungry Ironjaw Hag (Jaimelyn Gray) with a masking-tape mandible jutting out from beneath a sable cloak.
Yet for all The Silent Language’s fey curiosities, Zoran Paunovic’s ponderous English translation—full to the brim with cloyingly percussive cadences, sing-song rhymes, and pun-heavy verbiage—has so little by way of an actual story that the ear almost naturally tunes it out. Most of the jokes take the form of “clever” word games and an abstruse back and forth which gets monotonous long before it gets funny. In fact, The Silent Language—already a lean 90 minutes—might warrant yet another quarter-hour of fat trimmed off the bone. In fact, with the exception of Wain Parham’s original music (injecting a bit of soft humanity into Paunovic’s otherwise wooden dialogue), The Silent Language falls near entirely on deaf ears.
To my mind, folk tales on stage should go one of two ways: there’s the “Into the Woods way,” wherein they’re infused with sufficient enough humanity to make them accessible, contemporary and emotionally immediate, or there’s the “Shockheaded Peter way,” in which they’re performed as a grotesque nightmare. Stone’s production unfortunately waffles between these two poles, meaning its never stylized enough to be genuinely unsettling though at the same time never down-to-earth enough to be imminently relatable. Never pushed to the limits of either estrangement or empathy, the whole affair sort of putters along—too grown up for children but too childish for adults.
Still, even if TUTA’s production loses major points for style and substance, in many respects it more than makes up for them in visuals. For upon entering TUTA’s intimate studio space, the first thing you’d notice is that instead of chairs, you’re invited to sit rather in a varied assemblage of wooden stools, writing armchairs, and sofas (you might want to get in early to test out various sight lines). And suspended all around you—even high along the vaulted ceilings—are lush tapestries of worn earthen tones and barren branches pulling them back. And to set designer Michelle Lilly’s immense credit, there’s a genuine intricacy in TUTA’s otherwise small space, with varied levels, strange depths, and obscure corners unexpectedly opening up into something wondrous and fanciful.
And Keith Parham’s unconventional light design features several dozen single-bulb lights hung from the ceiling, a few PAR cans in one corner casting a grayish moonlight across the stage, lights hidden along the floor casting ominous shadows from behind crate boxes, and chandeliers both suspended from the ceiling and even strung across the stage in decrepit disrepair. Such dazzlingly ingenious variances in focus and intensity create an unmistakably lyrical atmosphere, lending even moments of complete darkness a kind of texture.
But there’s got to be a special shout out for costume designer Branimira Ivanova’s !AMAZING! constructions: bricolage masterworks of simple ready-to-wear pieces, funky colored patterns, ornate knits and lacework, wicker appendages, masking tape, and wire sculptures. From frogs adorned with wire eyeballs to serpents in scale-patterned onesies to the grotesquely frightening proboscis of the Boogeyman, each and every one of Ivanova’s inspired costumes look as though they were cut whole cloth from a dream.
So sure. The story’s not the best in the world. And the tone and style are a bit muddled. But if you’re willing to put up with it, you’ll at least be partially rewarded with some remarkably inventive visuals by some first-rate production designers. Indeed, at least in this case, the Silent Language is the one you hear with your eyes.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Saturday, April 27th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
The Silent Language runs until May 19th, 2013. TUTA Studio Theatre is located at 2010 W. Fulton Ave. For reservations call 1-800-838-3006. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-silent-language/6184/.