When Bad Earthquakes Happen to Good Theater: Julia Cho's "The Language Archive" at South Coast Repertory

At the end of Act One of Julia Cho's funny, layered, and ultimately heartbreaking new play, The Language Archive, two characters come together in a pivotal embrace. At Sunday's matinee performance at South Coast Repertory, during that embrace, the entire theater started shaking. I knew SCR had some money (that theater is freaking nice!), but that special effect—a blend of sounds (rumbling!), sights (swinging light fixtures!), and physical assault (our bodies rocking side to side!)—seemed like it would cost an astronomical amount of money.

Well, it turns out that the shaking was actually an earthquake—a whopping 7.2 tremor centered in Baja California, Mexico. Seconds before the end of the first act, the actors stopped the performance and a stagehand ushered them away. An announcement on the PA system instructed the audience to leave the building.

After the forced intermission, we were allowed to return for Act Two, in which we discover how metaphorically perfect an earthquake is to that pivotal embrace—in ways that are obvious, but also in ways that are unexpected and pleasurable. It made me tear up. And it reminded me once again the tightrope that is live theater.

On the surface, The Language Archive is about a brilliant linguist who wrestles with love and, well, language. But the play goes much, much deeper than that. The "romantic comedy" marketing (smart move, I suppose) avoids talking about how the piece is primarily about loss—it explores the tragedy (and unexpected freedom) that overwhelms us when marriages crumble, when world cultures disappear, when people die.

Julia Cho remains one of my favorite playwrights (I've taught Durango and 99 Histories in my various playwriting classes at both EWP and USC), and The Language Archive is another great entry into her impressive body of work.

The Language Archive by Julia Cho runs through April 25, 2010, at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California.


  1. Oh, I was SO hoping you'd write up this up. We went last week, and I loved it, save the epilogue. I felt it was a bit odd, took me out of the show at the end.

    I don't know how much of that is personal preference, though. The rest of the show was just hilarious and heartbreaking at once. This is the kind of script I'd read for pleasure, and I plan to catch Cho's work in the future.

  2. Prince, next time you go see a show at SCR, you need to call me up. I live in irvine and i need to go to more theatre. :)

  3. It sounds like a real groundbreaking play.

  4. Solia, I will keep that in mind!

    Howard, what are ya--some kinda comedian?

  5. oh man. that set is gorgeous. we got to tour SCR on tuesday for one of my classes, and they just kept talking about the earthquake during the play. I was like "hey! I know about that!" haha.
    at least if any books fell no one would get hurt. they're all cardboard boxes. :)