Angelic voices

By Kait Burrier, Weekender Correspondent

The pulse of dripping water, the steady breath of a violin, and the heartbeat of thousands of bats in a cave open “Language of Angels,” a delicately woven ghost story by playwright Naomi Iizuka.

The University of Scranton Players production begins with an invitation to the audience to imagine and to experience. Directed by New York 's renowned Josť Zayas, the 80-minute piece follows six characters in Tennessee mountain country from their days of playing in caves to their abrupt adolescence, from their haunted adulthoods to the final years of the surviving few.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka is known for her non-linear storytelling. The director elucidates: “Her plays are driven by language, by formal concerns.” Zayas has worked with many contemporary language-based playwrights, in both Spanish and English, including Caridad Svitch and Sarah Ruhl. Zayas recently directed Ruhl's award-winning play “The Clean House” and Edward Albee's equally imagistic and stimulating “Tiny Alice” at the University of Scranton.

In “Language of Angels,” Iizuka has woven a gossamer thread of voices, both past and present, from scene to scene. She presents the audience with subtle indicators of the truths among friendly legends and unspoken assumptions. Ethereal images and phrases are repeated and juxtaposed throughout the play. “Language of Angels” is a fresh take on theater and storytelling.

“She's riffing on the idea of how we tell ghost stories,” explains Zayas.

Iizuka's ghost story fits into the popular lineage of smart yet spooky storytelling, with roots in Japanese Noh and J-horror.

“It's not like a traditional ghost story because we don't have to wait until the end to find out who did it,” explains dramaturg Hank Willenbrink. “Instead, the play's deliberate investigation of what happened that night to upset the lives of so many people is mirrored in the production's usage of silence, sound, and very deliberate pacing.”

With Iizuka's rich, sensual language and the spectacle of the production, the audience is immersed in the experience of the story.

“Theater, in many ways, isn't that much different now than when it first started out some 2,500 years ago,” says Willenbrink. “The two things you need are also the most important: an actor and someone to hear them talk. That's the strength of this production and this play; we watch the effects of life play out on a large canvas.”

Some students have had the opportunity to work with Zayas since his Scranton debut directing David Mamet's “The Water Engine.”

“It's my fourth year coming to Scranton,” says the director, who has seen a few freshmen through to their senior season. “It's really edifying to see them growing and learning storytelling.”

The small cast of students – Cillian Byrne, Catherine Fischer, Tim Flynn, Michael Kranick, Keri Irace, Megan Lasky, Kiley Lotz and Joe McGurl – portray the same group of friends over a few decades and indicate the various stages of their characters' lives with precise acting choices as opposed to old age makeup.

“This is also why it's the perfect college show,” says Willenbrink, “because it lets the actors make big choices which have impacts far beyond the moment that a particular choice is made.”

This production's choices, ranging from bold multimedia and multi-leveled platforms to delicate gestures and swelling silences, trace a pattern of distinct impressions. There's great tension in the eye contact and physical stillness between characters, in particular between Kiley Lotz's Danielle and Joe McGurl's JB. Lotz's emotional range and static energy stun.

“This play is an exercise in stillness,” Zayas notes. The exercise will undoubtedly engage the audience, too, in a captivated stillness.

“Language of Angels” runs March 15-17 at the University of Scranton's intimate Royal Theater in the McDade Center for Literary and Performing Arts. Tickets are available online via and through the box office at 570.941.4318.

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