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December 5, 2006

Theater Review - 'Language of Angels': Noh Way

Language of Angels: Photo by Harlan Taylor Courtney Miller (Celie) and Joey Coe (JB) in Walden Theatre’s “Language of Angels.”The “Rashomon effect” is the effect of subjective perception on memory, and explains how multiple observers provide different but equally believable accounts of an event. Naomi Iizuka’s “Language of Angels” uses this device to relate a schoolgirl’s disappearance as told by her circle of friends. Iizuka also dips into the Japanese Noh tradition, with her actors telling their version of the tale as though they themselves are ghosts. In darkness, we hear cacophonous voices chanting words and, as the soft lights come up, we see them as they’ve been spray-painted by teens on the walls of their Appalachian party cave. “JB loves Jolene. Billy loves Allison."“Seth loves Celie. 4ever ’n’ ever.”Seth (Aaron Morris), illuminated as if by campfire, recounts the night of debauchery when Celie (Courtney Miller) didn’t come out of the cave.With no interaction between the actors until the last third of the play, this work is a challenge. The first section was commissioned the McCarter Theatre in 1999 as part of a series of ghost plays. Iizuka revisited the piece for San Francisco’s Campo Santo in 2000. Written in fits and starts, these sections just don’t fit together. Adding insult to injury, Iizuka lacks empathy for her characters. As with her previous work, “At the Vanishing Point,” which purported to present Butchertown’s denizens, Iizuka lazily paints interchangeable stereotypes who leave no impression on the audience, making the incomprehensible plot even more difficult to connect with. Unfortunately, this is the sort of piffle that wins grant funds.The Walden cast and crew soldier on admirably with their tough lot. Under Alec Volz’s direction, the first section transports the audience into the cave, with harsh spotlights under the actor’s faces, and eerie vocal reverberation. The recurring strains of the Rosemary Clooney standard “What’ll I Do” are sung in a childish ghost-voice, reminiscent of the electronic voice phenomenon by which some say spirits communicate.Miller is flawless as the wraithlike Celie, especially during her haunting soliloquy. Mitchell Martin stands out as Billy, the lout who goes to prison for shooting Michael (Danny Koenig), the stranger who may be an archangel sent to deliver the surviving teens from Celie’s curse. Sarah Johnsrude is a natural as Allison, Billy’s put-upon girlfriend. Joey Coe is engaging as JB, one of the last to survive. In the finale, JB visits Danielle (Stephanie Shacklette) near the end of his life. In what should have been a moving finale, the rain sound effect drowns out the dialog between JB and Danielle (seated as far from the audience as possible) and renders an already difficult story utterly meaningless. Further, it causes the unbearable urge to micturate after sitting through 75 minutes of this yawn-fest without intermission.