The Birth and Death of Words
James Murray was the fourth editor, or, at least, person in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary project. Murray held the reins from the 1880s and died in 1915, never living to see the complete version he was compiling with the help of kin and volunteer readers, though several "fascicles" did make into print. Volunteers in England and the U.S. hand-scribbled definitions and usages of words on thousands of scraps of paper, which were meticulously filed in pigeonholes stowed on planks, first in a small London office in Mill Hill, and later on Murray's own Oxford, England, property, in a transformed garden shed, or "scriptorium."
The dictionary was a project of the London Philological Society, subsidized by Oxford University Press. As the years passed, Murray was harassed by the publisher for the time he was taking and for escalating costs. Murray wasn't compiling a book, however, but a bible. The exigencies of commerce were not his first concern, and rightly so. When the first fascicle was published in 1885, it sold a disappointing 4,000 copies. It was another 48 years until the Oxford English Dictionary was finally published in full, and it's impossible to imagine that any editor of such a monument would not be an eccentric, to put it mildly.
The eccentricities of words, their origins, and the people who study them, are the source of curiosity in Moby Pomerance's intriguing and gentle new play, The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder, which opened over the weekend at the Boston Court Theatre, in a co-production with Circle X Theatre Company. The silver-bearded Murray, played with stern tenacity by John Getz, is the play's anchor, though his lithe, adult daughter Jane (a prim Melanie Lora, blending a touch of snootiness with a dollop of sweetness) is the central character of a play that concerns itself with her emancipation from the tiny empire of words clutched so tyrannically by Jane's increasingly raving father.
Brian Sidney Bembridge's set, depicting Murray's Oxford scriptorium, contains walls comprising filing compartments. Bembridge also tucks books into crannies and beneath the floorboards of a strategically claustrophobic confine — made more so by an overhanging panel near the front, which blocks the air of the open stage and urges focus down onto a hierarchy of three or four desks (depending on the scene), with size and height corresponding to the rank of the employees. In a pair of comparatively metaphysical scenes, the walls open onto the carcass of a tree and a larger, more open universe that nonetheless hints of a horizon consisting of tiny files extending into eternity.
Bruno Louchouarn's original orchestral music and sound design contribute to the mystery hovering over the play's first half-hour, during which we're trying to fathom what world we're in and, frankly, what these people actually want. They consist of clerk Smythic (Time Winters), and a newer, younger employee named Mr. Williams (Henry Todd Ostendorf), who opens the play, terrified by the consequences of having to tender his resignation — the source of fear of course being the untender James Murray.
Pomerance's clever plays on language and the world of words holds a fascination that begins to wear thin, not because of its confines but because those confines aren't explored in the way that the play would seem to promise. Actually, the play more than suggests that its primary concern is words and their origins in extinct cultures and multiple continents, a drama about mortality and rebirth through lexicons of utterances. The plot, however, suggests that this is a play about people coming and going, and the family traumas and emotional neglect that cause them to do so. Those two sets of ideas remain largely untethered, or at least connected very loosely via domestic intrigues in a Masterpiece Theatre kind of way.
James' returning and sorely neglected prodigal son, Paul Murray (Ryan Welsh), has now become a cartographer, which Dad barely notices and certainly has no respect for. The old Lear is incapable of showing appreciation, let alone respect, for anybody. His own children top his list of disregard. There's a new hire named Owen (Ostendorf again), and the issue of a former clandestine affair between he and Paul. Are they now capable of working together in the midst of their furtive attraction? It was with this dramatic question that my thumbs started to twiddle.
The making of maps and the accruing or words are, in conjunction, the signposts of empire. That pivotal conjunction here remains hinted at but unconjured.
The meanings of words and their connection to empire — even if that empire is a personal one — have been treated by wordsmiths from Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel to Caryl Churchill, who show the consequences of words that no longer work, that become either tapes or tropes, spoken through thoughtless habit, or disembodied from breath. The end of words that carry meaning is the beginning of death.
The editor, James Murray, is facing his end, but everybody here chatters, including him, after two hours of action, as they had at the beginning, as though they all understand each other perfectly. Even James' diatribes about Galileo — described as ravings though they actually make perfect sense — neglect the mortality that the loss of language, or the Sisyphean effort that birthing a dictionary, imply. The play's weakness, ironically, is not so much with the story but with the treatment of language itself. That language remains cogent and beautiful and clever, but it alone has scant connection to the birth-death ordeal of building a dictionary.
John Langs stages a very stylish production in which the crossing into England by American actors is 90 percent traversed. Good cameo performances also by Travis Michael Holder and Gillian Doyle.
The end of language signifying the end of life is driven home in Urban Death, two-dozen wordless, visual tableaux, accompanied by Christopher Reiner's original music score, and presented by Zombie Joe's Underground, late nights every Saturday.
Jana Wimer directs the almost entirely glib complication of goth-horror parodies, lit by Adam Neubauer in sudden blasts of light but mostly engulfed in shadow. Jeremy Gladen is featured in the production's strongest scenes, one as a cocky asshole in the midst of text-messaging while crossing the street. We hear car tires screech, then an awful thump as he slams into the theater's back wall, his eyes roll upward and blood cascades out his mouth. Even as he slithers and trembles down the theater wall to his death, he clutches his cell and continues to text his final words.
We see Rhea Richardson in underwear, gagged and bound with electrical tape on the floor, and whimpering. That's the entire five-second image, lingering somewhere between snuff pornography and the mockery of it.
A couple of sketches are dedicated to one actor who's a specialist at screaming. In one five-second scene, he lies on his stomach atop a stool, in his underwear, arms extended as though falling from an airplane, screaming. This was his second or third screaming tableaux, and the audience of mostly people in their 20s and 30s, got the joke head-on.
There are scenes dedicated solely to bleeding and vomiting, depicted with the cinematic veracity of stage effects. Even at a little more than an hour, the cumulative effect includes redundancy, amidst respect commanded by an ensemble that enters the macabre and its quivering death throes with a deranged commitment, and commitment to derangement. The audience's howls of laughter signify the distancing mechanism from the visceral discomfort, which is the evening's greatest virtue.
THE GOOD BOOK OF PEDANTRY AND WONDER | By MOBY POMERANCE | Presented by the THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT and CIRCLE X THEATRE COMPANY | Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Aug. 29 | (626) 683-6883
URBAN DEATH | Presented by ZOMBIE JOE'S UNDERGROUND | ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Sat., 11 p.m.; through Oct. 30 | (818) 202-4120.
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