Mad scientists and mutants unwrap 'Gift of Forgotten Tongues' [Theater review]

If you like sci-fi mixed in with surreal choreography and a complicated father-daughter relationship, you're going to love "Gift of Forgotten Tongues," on stage at Venus Theatre on C Street through Sept. 28.

Written by New York-based playwright Fengar Gael, the futuristic play is sometimes fast-paced and sometimes not, with the characters skillfully pulling the audience into their troubled lives.

The play takes place in the lab of Dr. Weaver, a geneticist who wants to someday win a Nobel Prize and is hoping an ethically questionable experiment will make it happen. In the play, Venus Theatre founder Deb Randall exudes a serious and goal-oriented persona in the role of Dr. Weaver. Her lonely character has hints of a mad scientist as she methodically works to preserve languages worldwide. Her plan is to also create a universal language that would allow people to communicate freely with each other globally.

"This is so different from anything we've ever done," said Randall. "I just love the sci-fi aspects because it allowed my set designers to go bionic on this."

The set design for Weaver's lab, where all of the action takes place, immediately grabs the audience's attention and sets the tone for the play. The stark white floor curves to form a large circle, with a wooden, raised, square tub-like structure in the center. A large white circle, surrounded by black walls, is painted over the tub, with Weaver's office, also in black and white wood and steel, overlooking the setting. The sterile-looking set was designed by Amy Rhodes, last seen at Venus Theatre as the girl in "The Stenographer."

Randall, who is the show's producer and director, uses well-executed choreography, video scenes and mood-setting lighting throughout the production as the drama unfolds.

The sci-fi slant is most evident as Weaver uses mutant humans in her experimental attempt to keep languages from disappearing.

The mutants, Celia, a young mom played by Kathryn Kelly and Claude, a gay musician played by Matthew Marcus, were both near death when Weaver chose them for her experiment. She's kept them alive and is shown in black and white video recording their vitals and working with them. The mutants have countless languages in their memories. However, these days, they rarely speak but mainly hum.

The audience first sees them as moving humps under a covering in the tub as variations of yellow lights are projected on them. They're supposed to be disgusting and slimy looking, but the audience has to use its imagination here because when they reveal themselves, their bodies are covered in nude-colored body suits. There are red spots and vein-like etchings all over them, testament to the horrendous journey they've endured while Weaver tried to keep them alive.

The beauty of the mutants' roles is that they are constantly embracing, hugging and intertwining their limbs around each other as they move around in the tub or on the full stage in flowing, balletic movements.

"The playwright saw them as being in clothes bags initially, and then in water, but we thought of using lighting on them instead of water and it worked out well," Randall said.

The timing of the mutants' periods of stealth-like almost synchronized, rhythmic movements and then sleeping in each other's arms is orchestrated well so as not the be overdone.

"I loved the oneness of those two characters (the mutants)," said Venus theatre first-timer Olga Cooper, of Silver Spring. "They are so intertwined with each other and the use of the video, media, created a more dynamic experience."

In the first act of the play, Randall's character hires Fernelle, played by Kelsey Painter, a frequent to Venus' stage, to work with her on the language project. Fernelle, a Harvard student who dresses Goth in trendy black outfits and boots, is always drinking something through a straw in a cup, like the lead character of the HBO series "Weeds." Fernelle is a precocious linguist savant, but prefers cursing like a sailor, even in front of her needy father. The petite Painter plays the role well and looks the part of a college sophomore.

Fernelle's father, Felix, played by George Tamerlani, is a college professor who became an alcoholic 10 years ago following the death of his wife. Fernell basically takes care of him. The two disagree on many things, including his constant drinking and wanting a career for Fernelle as a CIA translator instead of working for Dr. Weaver. But Felix becomes fascinated with Fernelle's supposedly secret project with Weaver and promises to stop drinking if he can work on the experiment as well.

Even the mutants find this unbelievable and stop their almost surreal movements at the suggestion, considering Felix is seldom without a flask.

"He's doing for you, complete strangers, what he's never done for me," Fernelle says to the mutants — evidence of the complicated relationship she has with her father.

"Gift of Forgotten Tongues" has a lot of layers in terms of the characters and special effects and it requires the audience's full attention. This Venus Theatre show is the first full production of the play and the caliber of the actors, coupled with the media effects makes it a work well done.

Venus Theatre is located at 21 C St. For tickets, go to the online box office or call 202-236-4078.

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