By Steve Odenthal
I was excited to see what was in store tonight as a new show direct from and also commissioned by The Kennedy Center, Where Words Once Were, was presented in its very first staging out in the real world under the direction of Tracy Callahan, Professor of Theatre at Weber State University. This is quite an honor and sign of trust from perhaps the most prestigious and recognized institution promoting the development of Fine Arts in our country. The assignment of one of The Kennedy Center’s prized new works to Weber State University is a very high honor and bestowed because of the long working relationship and level of competence displayed on stage in previous years and productions. And I am happy to say that they’ve done it again. I was very pleased with the evening and especially the discussion after because this show is such a conversation starter—requiring each of us to “use our words.”
Finegan Kruckemeyer, the playwright, has written his script to take us to a dystopian land called “The City”, where, because of its divisive power previously, the current ruling class has determined that a new official language must be put in place. The language is limited to 1000 words and 1000 words only. If and when it becomes necessary to create a new word, one of the currently acceptable words is erased from the vocabulary of The City’s population so that there can be room for the new word. Once erased, that word must never be spoken again to maintain the exact 1000 word count. As this is the law, anyone uttering an erased word will find themselves (and their family members) banned from speaking or being spoken to forever. They exist, but they are ignored and serve out their days in silent disgrace.
May I take a moment here to point out that this is a family-friendly show and is recommended for middle-school and older? The entire premise of this show is to teach us the value of words and our right to say them. This is a particularly timely piece as we believe that it is our right to express ourselves at all times using what some have described as “the best words.” How tough would it be for all of us if we were limited in what we can say? I truly believe parents viewing this play along with their children will have no shortage of thought-provoking conversation immediately after. And that is a good thing. In fact, the director is banking on those very frank conversations as she has scheduled a performance specifically for youth on Wednesday, November 15th at which a current student id card will allow free admission. I would encourage all schools, groups, and individuals to take advantage of the University’s attempt to provide a Fine Arts experience for this under-served age-group.
The play is aesthetically pleasing without diminishing any of the dystopia—which, in itself, can be hard to pull off. Kudos are in order to the Scenic Designer (Sam Transleau) whose vision is on display delivering a sense of tranquility amidst chaos. There is no overt rebelling force left, for the fighting is over and we have lost; therefore the physical damage evident in the set makes it simply a platform where life functions are enacted. School is taught, bread is made, and the streets are guarded by the appropriate authority or role-player.
The Production Team and Staff make bold statements and stylizations with ease and humility in this show. In discussing some of those choices after the production each one credited another. I truly felt that Technical Director (Bryce Allen), Costume Studio Manager (Jean-Louise England), and Projection Board Operator (Max Gilchrist) need to be singled out for their work on this production. I am leaving a lot of technical people out by only mentioning a few, but let me say that you will not find a technical problem in the design of this show.
Before mentioning the fine ensemble of actors who lent their talents to this production allow me to make mention of the sense of unity in motion that was present from the very opening of the show. In this dystopian society, like most, an iron hand rules and individualism is not easily tolerated. What was exceptional to me was the presentation of all group motions and rituals as, not robotic, but uniform and natural in flow without forsaking the individualism of each member of the group. To me, that is where the rebellion of this people existed. Well done to Angenette Spalink who worked with the entire cast as Movement Director.
As this is a new play, the characters have not yet been fully formed and stamped to be repeated in each production run. In this, the play’s second staging, there is still time for the characters to be lifted off a page and have beautiful life breathed into them according to the personal message Kruckemeyer delivers as part of his notes. He also praises Callahan, the whole creative team, and the brilliant student ensemble involved in the production for doing exactly that work and delivering his show to a new audience. He is correct in his assessment—the show has great merit on its own, but moreover, the production is first class.
The ensemble of players shows a great diversity of character and spirit lurking just below their outer crust of uniformity. As mentioned before, when movement is necessary in this world it is aligned and efficient but maintains a flair that each character provides subtly. The ensemble (Anna Carr, Pedro Flores, Victoria Wood, and Yu-Chen Wang) are all natural in their immersion into this futuristic culture without surrendering all of their souls to it. I enjoyed identifying the nuances in each without losing the main story.
The leads of this show are outstanding. Each character is fully drawn and realized making our trip to “The City” believable, almost inviting, and yet dreadful at the same time. Orhan (Callahan Crnich) is not a rebel by nature and it is his development that meters the show. He is surviving his existence and his place within the land but has not considered that any form of joy might be within his reach. So, he is busy coloring within the lines when we find him. Crnich’s character evolves quietly and begins to understand the restrictions imposed upon him and fights his way through to emotion by finding love.
Alli (Kaitlyn Hipwell) captures the spirit of the play as she struggles to communicate her true feelings, knowing that she has lost so many words to express them. I felt her loss deeply as she ached behind her smile, all the while communicating her soul and longing with her eyes.
The role of the Girl (Nicky Rice), a silent one shunned by this society for the acts of defiance which her father had dared at an earlier time, is handled with passion and energy–a direct contrast to her dystopian environment. We perceive her as our guide into this world as she serves as a narrator of sorts. She handily keeps our interest as the story moves along.
Issac (Christian Johnston), the government official with a deep love for Alli, goes about his duties, barely disguising his soft-hearted enforcement of the law on words with his proper use of “the language”, all the while bringing his true and deeper messages to his beloved. Johnston handles his emotional break from official to rebel in a very believable manner.
The Kiernan (Riley French) role serves as more than just comic relief as French brings his character to a point of no return and makes friendship and loyalty more than just a word by giving it value as his character is allowed to glimpse the importance of both in protecting his friend. The Kiernan character steps out of himself to sacrifice for another, blowing a large hole in whatever control remains in place in “The City”.
Eila (Landry Thomas) shows spunk that belies her circumstance of drudgery. Thomas seems to be bubbling just below the surface doing all the right things at just the right times, staying within the lines as Eila; but, somehow, we know that the crayon within her craves to stray out of bounds.
The role of Teacher is well played by Patrick Kibbie who has to dance between his true feelings for the words that are slowly being erased and his quasi-official status as a teacher of the children. By design, we see his role as perhaps the most like us, stuck with an injustice that seems too insurmountable to fight. Kibbie’s character does slightly more than riding the fence here, but accurately depicts a too common man.
Where Words Once Were is the perfect play to bridge the gap between parents and their children because of its message about the importance of opening true dialogues with one another. Many conversation starters are available to thoughtful minds. An evening spent in a discussion of where we are, how we’ve gotten to this point, and how we can avoid the vision portrayed on stage, pertaining to our rights of speech and choice of word use, will be time well invested. Walls will be torn down, not built here. Take advantage of a deep message delivered in a family-friendly and appealing (in a Sci-Fi way) staging at the Allred Theater in the Val Browning Center on the Weber State University Ogden Campus. This is a great opportunity to take a break from mindless things and engage. Let’s make use of our words again. It is worth it.
Weber State University Department of Performing Arts Presents Where Words Once Were by Finegan Kruckemeyer
Val Browning Center, 1901 University Cir, Ogden, UT 84408
November 10-11, 14-18 7:30 PM – Matinee November 18 2:00 PM
Tickets: $13 – $11/Students, Seniors/Military