Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes


Elisa Bocanegra and Al Rodrigo - Photos by Gio Solis by

By Joe Straw

Theatre is remembering the moment. – Narrator

Haditha, Iraq is on fire. It rages out of control as explosions engulf fleeing innocent women and children. 

One more bomb explodes and lifts Shar (Vahen Assadourian) off the ground into an almost a backflip and onto the dry desert sand.

After the cut in action, Elliot (Peter Pasco) becomes aware that the Jordanian wind has caused the stunt to go awry.  He’s concerned that Shar flew exceedingly far and might be hurt. He runs to her and ask questions to check on her mental and physical acuity.   

“I’m Shar. I’m in Jordan filming a movie.”Shar

In the course of doing the physically demanding stunt, Shar has soiled her abaya (a long black long-sleeved robe worn by Muslim women) and needs another one. 

Ali (Kamal Maravati) hired as a local expert and doubling as an assistant costumer, says he will get her a change. But there’s the bad news—she fell the wrong way and Nigel, the director (not seen), wants to do it all over again.

L - R Kamal Marayati, Peter Pasco, and Vaneh Assadourian

Ali, more than generous, scurries off to get Shar a new abaya.  

This gives Elliot time to share the on-the-set gossip—the lead actor got fired on this docu-drama.  This is good news for Elliot. His agent has already negotiated for points on the film. And now, he is moving up in the world.

Elliot knows they have the next day off so he enlists Ali to drive them to Egypt.  Ali says it’s too dangerous because of the upheaval with Mubarak leaving office.

The Latino Theater Company presents The Happiest Song Plays Last written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Edward Torres and now playing downtown on 6th Street through March 17, 2018.  

Scene 2

Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), doing the neighborly thing, has just gotten Agustín (Al Rodrigo) out of jail.  It is too early in the morning to be pleasant to one another and yet all Austín can think of is the food on the stove. (Well, that’s the second thing on his mind.) Yaz, still delirious from waking up during the graveyard shift, won’t let him have a bit of it.

“I hate jail.  Thirty people, one toilet, no food.”  - Agustín

“Then stop going there.” - Yaz

“If there was someone else I could have call, I would.” - Agustín

“You have a wife. Her name is Miriam.” - Yaz

“Best friends are less judgmental.”   - Agustín

Despite all the grief, they enjoy each other’s company, the stories, and everything Yaz does to liven this northern Philadelphia neighborhood.  Yaz pushes Austín in the direction of his wife, but he is not budging and that’s when Lefty (John Seda-Petre) looks through the window and then bangs at the door.

Even though Yaz has an unlocked door policy, Lefty needs Yaz to let him in. Lefty is homeless, bound in garb that keeps him warms on the streets of Philadelphia. Lefty calls Yaz “mom”, and immediately Yaz directs him to the pots, to get food for himself and for the assortment of other hungry homeless characters in the neighborhood.  

Agustín is interrupted in his quest for more than a moment of Yaz’s time as Lefty sits, eats his food, and eyes both of them.  

Stopped in the progression of his task, Agustín waits for Lefty to leave. Meanwhile we learn that Agustín is a musician and an educator—he was Yaz’s first music teacher in high school. Also he has sent many poor kids to college including Yaz who went to Yale and has become a professor of music.

Agustín wants only one thing before his time is up and that one thing will make all the difference in the world.

There is something enchanting about this play, directed by Edward Torres, that says a lot about life, and about bringing life into this world. And it is also about enriched cultures expressing a quiet rage, a particular point of view, where lives can change in a dramatic instant.

This production is pleasing to the soul.  It is remarkable in so many ways, it is visually stunning, and the acting is top notched. But there are a few observations that need to be addressed, which I will get to later.

One of the things I enjoyed in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s work is the simplicity of the dialogue, the timelessness of the issues, and the complexities of living in today’s world.  “Happiest” is about doing the thing you love to do best.  Hudes gives us delectable oblong morsels in her art, strong visuals of life, and words that play like music.

In addition to bringing happiness into the world, there is another side to Hudes’ work—about death and destruction and people starving in the streets. One catches glimpses of these backstories in this play but still we feel the immeasurable importance of the struggle of unfortunate human beings as they negotiate their way about the world.

What gives this story its dramatic glow is the unconquerable obstinacy of people trying to make right for things that are horribly wrong. And these individuals are doing their best, by offering the smallest part in saving the world.  It is touching in so many ways and stays with you long after you have left the theatre.  On top of all that, it is graphically poetic in ways that art enlightens the soul.

L - R Elisa Bocanegra, Vaneh Assadourian, Peter Pasco, and Kamal Marayati

Edward Torres, the director, has a fine time with this ensemble.  All of the actors grow in their moments on stage. And there is an extreme fascination in witnessing their hard work on stage. But some opportunities to reveal character traits are missing.  These are the physical traits that create and move a character toward their objective. With that said, there appears to be more going on than the spoken word.  Two characters in a room alone conflicted by what they want, because that conflict hinders those persons from their objective. The two are in a sparring match, moving beyond a moment only after embracing a resolution in conflict.  For example, there is a lot to be added to the relationship between teacher and student, among adulterous neighbors, among co-workers, and even among adversaries.

Also, the play begs to be performed in a much more intimate space. Se Hyun Oh, Scenic Design, gives a wonderful set for the actors to create, a modest home in Philadelphia, and a desert space in Jordan. But, the night begs to see actors, up close, highlighting their subtle moments, their conflicted eyes, and the slight touches of an awakening romance. Still, one can’t help but be amazed when walking into the theatre and seeing the beautiful set.  

Elisa Bocanegra (Yaz) brings a lot of humor to the role. She has a lovely voice in the opening number, which is a wonderful addition to the play. Yaz is a delightful character with a compassionate heart – one that wants to give to the entire Philadelphia neighborhood and possibly the world.

Al Rodrigo (Agustín) has a commanding presence and a wonderful way about the stage. His movements toward a physical relationship are possibly too subtle for this venue.  Rubbing someone’s callous feet doesn’t move far enough into establishing a significant romantic relationship. Still, overall his performance brings a heartwarming smile.

Peter Pasco takes time to grow as Elliot. But after a time, he settles into the role. There’s more to be had with his relationship with his yet to be girlfriend and in particular the opening number, which plays like co-worker interacting rather than potential lovers.  Also, there’s more to had with his relationship to his cousin, an intimate backstory that needs addressing.  The back and forth on the phone/computer worked if you listened to the voices and not looked at the out-of-sync video projected on the walls.

Vaneh Assadourian presents a strong female figure as Shar, a stuntwoman and a graduate of Julliard. There is never a hint to a physical intimacy between her and her soon-to-be husband during this performance.  The scene of committing to travel together, the eating scene, and the hotel scene all have opportunities to make that happen.  Still, Assadourian presents a pleasant figure on stage.  

Kamal Marayati plays Ali, a lovely soul, who is Iraqi hiding in Jordan and working on the film. Marayati gives a tremendous amount of backstory to the character and I will remember the moment about the passport forever.  This is a performance not to be missed.

John Seda-Pitre
John Seda-Pitre also gives a marvelous performance as Lefty, a homeless character and is incapacitated with a mental problem. Lefty is an interesting character with an ambiguous objective for Seda-Pitre to conger. Lefty and Yaz need each other but how that translates to the ending is anyone’s guess. 

This version of the play has been changed from the published version available on Kindle.  So, if you’ve read it, you’re going to be enchanted by something a little different.

The music was brilliant by Nelson Gonzáles (Special Guest Artist) and accommodated the action on stage.

Dianne K. Graebner’s work as Costume Design was superb.

Ivan Robles’ Sound Design fit nicely with the accentuated dramatic moments on stage.

Other members of the hard working crew are as follows:

John A.Garofalo – Lighting Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Jess Wolinsky – Assistant Director
Cristina “Crispy” Carrillo-Dono – Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Lehrer – Production Stage Manager
Lucy Pollock – Publicity

Run! Run! Run! And take someone from Puerto Rico.  It will make all the difference in the world. 

One more note:  This was the best of the trilogy now playing in Los Angeles. 

Reservations: 866-811-4111

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