Heightened Language and 'Precious Little' 

A powerful new play takes language as its muse.

If you were fortunate enough to catch the opening night performance of Precious Little at Ashby Stage on Monday, then chances are you went home wondering about the playwright, Madeleine George, receiver of many awards, founder of an Obie-winning collective, Brooklyn resident, and assiduous blogger. If you went home that night and typed her name into Google, the first thing you found was her blog, which made you realize she's the kind of person who gets on a city bus and immediately transcribes all the conversations around her, then reconstructs them as a dialogue in a play. She'll include characters that many of us wouldn't think of — like, for example, an anthropomorphized version of your polo shirt. For anyone who's ever had the conceit of being a writer, it's an enviable talent.

Not surprisingly, her new play, produced by Shotgun Players and directed by Marissa Wolf, is about language. Its protagonist is a linguistics professor named Brodie (Zehra Berkman) who has decided, at age 42, to have her first child, via an anonymous sperm donor. Because of her advanced age, Brodie decides to undergo amniocentesis about twelve weeks into the pregnancy. Her main concern isn't that they baby will arrive with physical defects, but that if will falter mentally. For a woman who privileges verbal communication over all else, a mute or vacuous baby would be about the worst fate imaginable. When tests reveal that Brodie's child is, indeed, at risk for an obscure and complicated genetic disorder, she's faced with a grave choice.

That's the central conflict of the play, but strewn around it are several ancillary plots that all hew to the theme. Brodie is studying an endangered Eastern European language that requires her to interview survivors of a distant war. She's started a star-crossed affair with her graduate assistant. She's become infatuated with a large talking ape at the local zoo. The different stories precipitate as a series of interconnected vignettes, all fattened with dialogue, all exposing the powers and insufficiencies of language.

Three actresses carry the entire play, and Berkman is the only person responsible for just one role. Cal Shakes associate artist Nancy Carlin plays the old Eastern European woman, Cleva, who has agreed to participate in Brodie's language study. In other scenes she's a genetic counselor named Dorothy who advises Brodie on her "difficult" situation. She's also the talking ape, and the specter of Brodie's unborn fetus, curled up in a dark cubby of the stage that evidently represents a womb. Rami Margron takes on five roles, including that of a no-nonsense obstetrics technician and Brodie's grad student love interest. She also provides all the voices of the spectators at the zoo, a role that requires her to play six characters at once, merely by altering her vocal intonation.

Lesser actors might balk at the demands of this script, but Carlin and Margron are both endlessly transmutable. Carlin hunches her spine and curls her limbs to be the giant ape, while maintaining the glacial elegance of a woman trapped in a cage — she is, after all, the Sylvia Plath of gorillas. Margron shifts the register of her voice on a dime, acquiring a high, girly falsetto for Dorothy's younger assistant, Rhiannon, and a sultry baritone for the androgynous butch grad student, Dre. Since Precious Little is nearly void of exposition, the characters unravel each other's backstories within lines of dialogue. Thus, each conversation is a series of reveals. We find out Brodie is a lesbian when she is cross-examined at the obstetrics clinic; we find out about her line of research by witnessing conversations with Dre. Wolf stages each of these scenes to make the audience member feel like an eavesdropper, often isolating the actors in a small corner to make the space seem either more intimate or more confined. Martin Flynn's tall, capacious set, with its paneled walls and small cubicles, helps amplify that notion.

Like Brodie, playwright George clearly believes in the primacy of language — it's her artistic muse, after all. But she's also fascinated by humans' ability to manipulate it. Rhiannon lards her speech with euphemisms in a way that appears condescending; Brodie and Dre code-switch to academic jargon when they want to create the illusion of distance in their relationship. Characters cherry-pick their words in order to obfuscate meaning, and yet at times, they're overcome by the vessel — reciting numbers in her native language of Kari (which George apparently made up), Cleva is suddenly wracked by painful memories of childhood. It's no wonder George makes a living transcribing other people's vernacular prose. She's keenly aware of its power.

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