Give me grammar
The Town Without Syntax
Weekend this a play I to went see. Does sense this make any?
Of course not. And it was very difficult for me to write those two sentences without proper syntax, being that I am the original Grammar Nazi English teacher. Not only that, but it takes considerable thought, which is why I admire young Carson City local Nick Josten, creator and writer of this play, The Town Without Syntax, currently running at the Brewery Arts Center.
For those of you who aren’t grammar fanatics, syntax is the way words are put together to form sentences. If the arrangement makes sense, your sentence has proper syntax. Josten’s play explores what would happen if, one day, someone decided to mess with syntax, so that nothing he or she said made sense. But this play says more about the idea of change—and resistance to it—than it does about language.
The story begins as the high-strung, prim and proper teacher Mrs. Smith, played by first-time actor Tina Davis, begins the school year discussing syntax with her junior English class. She wears a jaunty red, white and blue scarf (which seems appropriate, as you’ll discover) and a tight bun in her hair. The students are dressed in ‘50s-type garb: the girls wear saddle shoes and neck scarves; the boys wear neatly-tucked-in white oxfords. In walks Fred (Christopher Caldwell), shirt unbuttoned and untucked, hair a mess, and he’s tardy. When he’s called upon to answer a question, a stream of nonsense pours out of his mouth. Fred has given up proper syntax in exchange for his own “non-syntax” language.
Of course, this drives Mrs. Smith up a wall, but his friends think it’s cool. The story rapidly becomes one of “us vs. them,” the adults against the rebellious youth. Before we know it, almost every kid is speaking this bizarre new language, and the parents and teachers are waving their flags, arguing that this movement goes against God and the American Way and must be dealt with at any cost.
It got me thinking about the hippie, war protestor movement of the ‘60s and of my own youth, growing up among goths in their all-black-and-pierced get-ups. This is the way of the world: the youths foisting their “crazy” ideas on the adults. And the fact that it’s done here with language makes it all seem so silly, which is really the whole point.
But, as Josten, a 21-year-old college student, is a first-time playwright, the show had its moments of long, rambling preachiness. About 20 minutes could have been cut out of the script for more impact. And as for the actors, almost all of them first-timers, there were awkward moments. The romance that develops between Fred and his classmate Mary, played by Erin McHam, lacks chemistry. And Mrs. Smith’s colleague Betty, played by Erin Keith, is prone to over-dramatization through extreme facial expressions.
But the show has some great things going for it, such as the brief but hilarious performance by Jaime Dunbar as Old Man MacGillicutty, a well choreographed fight scene and, overall, some brilliantly scripted moments and surprising plot twists. Plus, Josten truly creates a new language here, which we actually begin to understand. That’s talent. Come see the beginning of Josten’s career, and say you were there when it all started. Enjoy it you will.