What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking

What exactly is being communicated, and how is it different from what’s being said? For that matter, why’s it being said the way that it is?  These questions underlie a lot of the conversations in Precious Little, the latest show at Shotgun Players, but they’re questions that could as easily be asked of the intriguing, entertaining and elusive play itself. It’s written by Madeleine George, a New York playwright whose work I’m not familiar with, but I’m delighted to see that another one of her plays is titled Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England. She’s also from Amherst, Massachusetts originally, just like Circle Mirror Transformation playwright Annie Baker—or like Emily Dickinson, for that matter.

Nancy Carlin, Zehra Berkman and Rami Margron in Precious Little. Photo by Pak Han.

Precious Little, which premiered in Chicago last year, is a play about language posing as a story about a fortysomething single woman grappling with the question of whether to have a baby with a risk of birth defects. Not that the play can’t be both things, but its many fragments of story seem united only by the central character of linguist Brodie and an overall concern with language: interspecies communication, technical jargon, preserving dying languages, euphemisms and “not labeling” in relationships, and the incessant chatter of overheard conversations at the zoo, portrayed as somehow less civilized than the sounds the animals make.

Someone breaks up with someone else as if she’s just discontinuing an unfruitful class project, and her spurned lover chides her that she’s hurt people less if she’d just call things what they are. Frustrated with being spoon-fed the most basic grade-school preambles to the information she desperately needs, a highly educated patient tells a counselor to just lay out her medical information straight, only to be bombarded with technical jargon that’s way out of her field of knowledge. A professor stares deep into a gorilla’s eyes, feeling as if they understand each other, while they ape’s own thoughts are (at least in this instance) unknowable. Over and over again, George deftly plays with the idea of how people always seem to be speaking an entirely different language, and how miraculous it seems when they manage to make themselves understood at all.

Zehra Berkman is Brodie, a 42-year-old linguistics professor who’s recently become pregnant via artificial insemination. “People like me plan our pregnancies,” she tells a young pregnancy counselor near the beginning of the play. “You mean like older moms?” the counselor says, still very new at her job. “I mean like lesbians,” Brodie replies. She’s sleeping with one of her grad students but doesn’t take it that seriously and definitely seems to identify as single, which is to say alone. If she has any other friends or family, we don’t know about them, and she comes across as an island unto herself. The pregnancy she takes very seriously, keeping close tabs on it to make sure she has options if it looks like there’s danger of severe birth defects; most tellingly, the child being unable to talk would be a dealbreaker. Brodie becomes particularly animated when she talks about language, effusing about a particularly rare linguistic specimen or railing about the lack of syntactical logic in an artificial system created for interspecies communication. Both in performance and in the way it’s written, it comes off much more as an authentic passion of Brodie’s than as some kind of point that George wants to get across.

The acting is terrific throughout the Shotgun production, staged gracefully by Crowded Fire artistic director Marissa Wolf. Nancy Carlin gives a nicely understated performance as a gorilla in the zoo who’s supposedly learned to “talk,” or at least to respond to a handful of seemingly random vocabulary words. Interestingly, this never really comes into play, except in that people try to use the words to get her to do things and she just looks on impassively, refusing to engage. These words do interrupt her train of thought, such as it is, but it’s unclear if they have any meaning for her. The ape does speak, occasionally, eloquently expressing its inner monologue: the awareness of something in its hand that’s forgotten as its attention wanders to something else. It’s always a very present, of-the-moment expression of the sensory input the gorilla is having right now, and Carlin gives the gorilla a quiet, stoic nobility.

In fact, most of the characters she plays in the show are on the quiet side, including an understanding, down-to-earth supervising counselor who sits silently observing her trainee until the time comes for her to be “phased out.” Carlin is especially delightful as Cleva, one of the last native speakers of Kari, a unique Eastern European language that’s of the Finno-Ugric tree but with strong Turkic and Slavic elements (while incomprehensible, the bits of the language that we hear do sound as if they might fit that description—as opposed to the made-up Eastern European language in Anne Washburn’s play The Internationalist, which is clearly gibberish). Cleva is clearly frail, often sitting passively, as if uncomprehending, which makes it all the funnier when she asks questions in her musical Midwestern lilt. And when she recites an unrelated list of words in her native tongue for an archival recording, it’s beautiful, and it triggers a flood of memories of her childhood in the old country.

Rami Margron plays a number of roles, most notably Rhiannon, a young rookie pregnancy counselor who’s relentlessly upbeat but maddeningly green, nervously making her way through all the preapproved checkboxes and preambles when Brodie just wants her to stop condescending to her and cut to the chase. Brodie calls her “the Doogie Howser of genetic counselors.” She also plays a young grad student that Brodie’s having a fling with; a genial but businesslike ultrasound technician; and Cleva’s scowling daughter, who’s nervous about her frail mom getting too worked up (and whose voice is so husky that at first I thought she was Cleva’s son). Margron’s most impressive performance, however, is as hordes of gawking teenagers, families and other people at the zoo, different voices just seeming to spill out of her rapid-fire as she stares, stony-faced, dead ahead. It’s truly remarkable. Costumer Valera Coble drapes her with multiple backpacks and a variety of animal-eared hats, which accentuates the feeling that these chattering patrons are as much animals on display in the zoo as the gorilla is.

The tiled walls of Martin Flynn’s gray-yellow set are painted to evoke concrete and/or steel, with a huge door that slides aside to make way for the ape’s tiny island. Madeleine Oldham’s sound design sets the scene with the calls of monkeys and exotic birds. Scene changes are punctuated by synthy music layered with people speaking in foreign languages, as they might on archival recordings.

The scenes are temporally sequential but they still feel like fragments, disconnected as the list of words that Brodie has Cleva recite, which are grouped by sound rather than by sense. Similarly, the threads of the pregnancy, the sessions with Cleva, and the gorilla never really come together, nor do they come to any sort of resolution. What the pieces all add up to is unclear, and doesn’t become any less so as the play draws to its end with a beautiful and mysterious (if abrupt) tableau. But these separate strands do resonate with each other in a way that feels true to Brodie’s real passion, words. What people are talking about is present and real and important, but ultimately it’s much more about how they say it, and all the things they don’t.

Precious Little
Shotgun Players
Through September 16
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #76 of 2012, attended August 20.

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