Audience members did not know what they were settling in for as they entered the theater at Xavier this weekend to see the world premiere production of The Oxford Comma. They certainly were not disappointed by playwright Liba Vaynberg’s stellar work. This new play focuses on the relationship between two teachers, as well as their interactions with a co-worker and a student, exploring these relationships through complex physics and grammar concepts, which have more similarities than most would think.
The Oxford Comma is for both those that hate the English language and those that love it. It is inspired by two grammatical concepts: the subjunctive, a way of expressing wishes in romance languages, and the oxford comma. Through two interspersed timelines, the subjunctive allows the play to explore the reality of the characters as well as the romantic relationship George and Charlotte, the two teachers, wish they had. But the two timelines aren’t even the most complex part.
The oxford comma adds ambiguity to the pair’s relationship. The play opens with one statement, written on a chalkboard by the pair’s co-worker, Karen: “George flew to Rome with Charlotte a friend and a lover.” A question is then posed to the audience: how many people flew to Rome? This may seem clear-cut, but the ambiguity in this one sentence is immense. Grammatically, there are two ways to punctuate this sentence and three different interpretations of it that are explored throughout the play.
If you utilize the oxford comma, the sentence reads, “George flew to Rome with Charlotte, a friend and a lover.” Here, there could be three people travelling with George: Charlotte, another person who is George’s friend and another person who is George’s lover. Or there could be two people: Charlotte as George’s friend and another person who is George’s lover.
However, if the sentence is taken as written, without the oxford comma, it introduces the idea that only one person is accompanying George: Charlotte who is both George’s friend and his lover. This is the grey area the play explores: is Charlotte a friend, a lover or both? Explanations of grammatical concepts aside, the relationship between George and Charlotte, both of whom are married, blurs the lines between friend and lover in both timelines as the two gradually approach and teeter on the edge of having an affair.
The brilliance of this concept, as well as many other, more specific aspects of the play, were only highlighted by the fantastic work of the actors. Elliot Auch as George, Catherine Sholtis as Charlotte, Gigi Relic as Karen and Max Carlson as Nick were all extraordinary. Relic and Carlson had to play multiple roles, and Auch and Sholtis certainly seemed to be doing the same at times because of the differences in their relationship in the two timelines. This was quite the feat for the four actors, switching back and forth between characters and motivations so frequently and suddenly, but they all executed it beautifully. As a community, Xavier Theatre should be proud that they constructed such an amazing production to premiere Vaynberg’s play.
By: Liz Harris | Guest Writer