Opening Nights: Duel of the Linguist Mages

Power morphemes, unite!

Searching for linguistic control: Sara Mountjoy-Pepka and James Weidman.

Each week during the ’90s, the TV cartoon Pinky and the Brain devised a new means of world domination. Flanked by his trusty but feeble-minded sidekick, Pinky, Brain obsessed over each scheme, thoroughly convinced that this time! he would succeed. He didn’t, of course, which is just as well, because it was never clear why he wanted to take over the world or what he’d do once he had. If his obsession had been the result of an ethereal army of singing punctuation marks that had brainwashed him into delusions of grandeur, you’d have had something like Scotto Moore’s new sci-fi comedy Duel of the Linguist Mages.

Two corporate marketing researchers learn the extraordinary potential of “morphemes,” the smallest meaningful linguistic units. To be exact, they have 108 morphemes to influence human behavior. Bradford (Curtis Eastwood) sees this as a way to win political elections, while Olivia (Jen Moon) sees this—why not?—as a way to take over the world. She enlists the assistance of unwitting Nate (James Weidman), a computer programmer who devises an algorithm to combine the linguistic units into “power morphemes,” which can be used as weapons of mass destruction.

Though the science fiction grows increasingly complex and difficult to follow, Moore’s play is a classic tale of good versus evil: An apprentice strays from her master, enticed by power but lacking the moral grounding to use it for good. And naturally Olivia must battle her former teacher. (The two actually strike poses a la Yoda vs. Dooku; you can imagine the laser lights flying from their fingertips.)

Moore’s success here, as both writer and director, is finding the humor in such confrontational moments. Nate, who narrates, provides consistently funny commentary. Some scenes are even replayed in slow motion. Moore does, however, overextend his sci-fi premise: Duel runs long, and much of Act 2 feels superfluous. But it’s still good entertainment, filled with thought-provoking notions and moments of sincere laughter.

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