|L - R Keren Lugo and Sean Carvajal|
By Joe Straw
He left the war
and the military.
And on this day the only thing he wore,
besides his skivvies,
were his dog tags.
Leaning hot head
clink's the sliding glass door,
he listened to his tags
and the jarring “clicks”,
memories of killing another human being.
as droplets of sweat
run down his face,
to his tags,
and soundlessly dropped
like blood to his knees,
Living beyond that day,
over and over again,
was not easy for him.
The easy part
was the other guy
away. – Narrator.
Center Theatre Group, Michael Ritche Artistic Director, Stephen D. Rountree Managing Director, Douglas C. Baker Producing Director, Gordon Davidson Founding Artistic Director presents Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. This show ran from January 31 – March 11, 2018 and has closed.
Upon entering the Mark Taper Forum, one is struck by the unusual set design, the Scenic Design by Adam. The sets walls were thrown up against the upstage wall, lit like office cubicles lacking aquariums (Lighting Design, Yi Zhao), and the stage was relatively bare. Chairs and desks moved in and out, but mostly downstage, when needed.
And along the upstage parapet and on the second level were green plants, lots and lots of plastic plants encrusted against the palisade representing El Yunque in Puerto Rico a place were the water never stops falling and is green all year around. El Yunque plays an important part near the end of the play.
The entire cast avoided center stage.
The look was unusual to say the least. When the time came, what was going to happen middle center stage? More on this later.
Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes and direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz has some remarkable moments in it. Hudes writes beautifully in the way information is release, by the spoonful, until audiences are satiated.
The characters themselves are awash in rivulets that splash and are suddenly defined all under pressure and in critical moments in the play. Those moments burst like a flower absorbing the morning dew and it happens in full slow motion glory.
But the falling cascade had actors reacting, at times, without absorbing those moments, similar to the falls, which brush harshly against the rocks with seemingly no effect.
Were the characters feeling the same thing to that which I was listening? Did the words hit them as it hit me? Were those moments defined, and did they change the relationships?
Water by the Spoonful was my second favorite of the trilogy. Odd. Possibly, one is not to judge quality on the venue. Grand things come in small packages and The Latino Theatre Company’s show was remarkable, especially the acting.
So, what happened on the night I attended?
The time is 2009. Six years after Elliot left for Iraq.
The end comes, but first comes – a divorce.
Elliot (Sean Carvajal) meets a woman Yazmin (Karen Lugo) on a bench in a university setting. Elliot is looking for a man, and he’s not waiting too much longer – a rendezvous Yaz has set up. But first there are other things to settle.
“Yaz, you gotta help me with my mom.” – Elliot
His mom is in deep water, and not doing too well – cancer – and she’s eating the unhealthiest things on the planet.
“That’s Ginny. The more stubborn she’s being, the better she’s feeling.” – Yaz
(Hudes is not giving away anything, until…)
Yaz interrupts him to say that she has gotten a divorce; they fell out of out of love.
(Interesting moment. these two young adults, sitting together, and we are still not sure about their relationship although there’s brief hint. One likes ambiguous moments to enlighten or confuse – one of the two. But, the actors were letting go of very little. )
A man enters (Elliot hardly flinches). His name is Aman (Nick Massouh). (Cute name.) A man. He is a professor, of Arab background who grew up speaking English, and who also looks a lot like the ghost chasing Elliot around. Elliot needs an Arabic phrase translated.
“Eh, your sister’s cute.”- Aman
“Cousin.” – Elliot
Now we get the definitive answer to Yaz and Elliot’s relationship. But there’s more to the relationship that has not been defined. (Hudes is brilliant at letting the information come out with a wavy lustrous finish.)
Aman throws a dash of cold water onto Elliot’s face by asking a simple question about his dog tags. He’s also curious about Elliot’s background and is hesitant about translating a Iraqi phrase until his help is reciprocated in kind.
But Elliot is hard pressed to help the professor who is, technically, trying to hire him for a movie his friend is filming. (What is it that you don’t understand? Making money on a movie is more than making subways sandwiches?)
“… And you seem not unintelligent. For a maker of sandwiches.” – Aman
Spoken like a true hardnosed disparaging professor.
Odessa (Luna Lauren Vélez) is on the computer – her computer name is Haikumom and she greets the day on her computer with a haiku.
Orangutan (Kylvia Kwan) enters the chat room and types.
Ninety-one days. Smiley face. – Orangutan
Odessa Haikumom is seriously relieved that Orangutan is chatting again. Why? We don’t know as of yet. Little spoonfuls.
Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison) signs on and is also relieved the Orangutan is back.
Orangutan, originally named Yoshiko Sakai, was adopted by an American family and was living in Maine. Her parents got her URL and password and found out what Orangutan was all about. They summarily gave her a one-way plane ticket to Japan. (Nice folks!)
The three speak by chatting on a computer and, little by little, their relationship becomes clearer but not really defined.
“I’m sitting in an orange plastic chair, a little view of the Hokkaido waterfront.” – Orangutan
“Japan has a waterfront?”- Haikumom
“It is an island.” – Chutes&Ladders
The dialogue says a lot about the mental capacity of Haikumom, that maybe she is not too bright about certain things. She is also the administrator of the chat room, the mom, who deletes provocative language.
And still we go on and talk about water, Chutes&Ladders almost drowning, a lifeguard who pulls him out, and one more clue about “OD’s” and about starting to live again.
“Sober air toast. To lifeguards.” - Orangutan
Back at the university, we still don’t know the relationship between the chat group and Yazmin.
Little by little we find that Yaz is a music professor, infatuated by jazz and particularly, John Coltrane. She starts from her beginning, how her obsession started, and how she came to love the intricacies of Jazz.
“I never really heard dissonance before.” – Yaz
She will now, now that there’s trouble. Elliot phones Yaz and tells her “Mom” is dying and Pop texted that “Your mom is on a breathing machine.” This sends Elliot into chaos, heightened by PTSD from the war. And there’s an Iraqi ghost chasing him all around Philadelphia.
On the other side of the spoon, and into the chat room, we are introduced to Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), a man who has it all but also has a serious problem. This is why he decided to join this particular chat room. And this is when we find out what the chat room is all about.
“I’m taking my wife out tomorrow for our seventh anniversary and little does she know that when we clink glasses, I’ll be toasting to Day One.” - Fountainhead
There is much to enjoy in Quiara Alegría Hudes writing. The diverse makeup of people in the cast showcases a huge range of humanity, Japanese, Puerto Rican, African American, Iraqis, and white. It is a realistic view of Americana, especially of the people who reside in the city.
Sean Carvajal was a most remarkable Elliot especially his North Philadelphian accent that was impeccable and poured though his emotional being. Elliot is fleeing a ghost from another country and tormented by self-reflective pain. The ghost is real but only speaks Arabic. After he finds out what the ghost wants, that should lead the character. If I had to pick the best Elliot of the trilogy, Carvajal was the best. This Elliot sees things both real and imaginary. But he is never caught off guard by the seeing the same person in various roles. If this is a conscience acting choice, it is unremarkable and leads nowhere. Also the scene in the flower shop does not move us in the direction of the through line.
Keren Lugo was impressive as Yazmin. Yazmin is the brilliant but can hardly manage her affairs. She seems detached in the way she cannot be emotionally attached to her parents. People live, people die, and life moves on.
Nick Massouh did a fine turn as Professor Aman. Actually the professor was spot on in manner and character. Portraying the Ghost on stage is another matter, this wasn’t as creative as it could have been. Interesting the Arab character had the composition of sand and is the opposite of water. He is the sand, the foundation of mother earth, and the core for which all water lies upon.
Luna Lauren Velez plays Odessa. In her home, Odessa was the queen of her castle but out of her element she was lost in her role as a parent and a comforter. A character of fire and water that leaves a child behind because of her drug addiction and is never able to reconcile that relationship, ever. The pain is clearly evident in Odessa’s eyes but does that pain translate into any kind of reconciliation, or a purpose want that.
Sylvia Kwan is Oangutan and is pleasant enough. But, there’s a little something going on here between her and another member of the group. A strong relationship develops on paper but little of emotional attachment is seen on the stage and it is perplexing as to why those two people ever got together. Kwan really needs to find those moments, the physical way they are attached, and develop that relationship.
Bernard K. Addison is Chutes&Ladders, an IRS ‘GS4 paper pusher” on the verge of retiring. He is alone, too alone, and needs to find someone or his time is over. But just when he thinks that all is lost, there is something tangible, something around the corner, a possibility, someone who he cares deeply for, fear takes over. It is his overriding factor and something he must overcome. This is indeed a very nice performance.
Josh Braaten is Fountainhead, a very successful man who has the strong urge to go after the drug of his choice. He is a golden boy who has a nice family, a great business, and a very nice car. Too bad, he’s a drug addict. Everyone comes to the chat room for a reason, Fountainhead desperately want to be there to find the answer. Guilt seems to be the reason he is there, but what do you do with guilt? The action leads nowhere. Braaten needs a stronger choice in is objective and one that gives him a favorable, humanistic outcome.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director, creates a number of interesting moments on stage. Some moments are so subtle as to be almost invisible. The effect of the center stage was a mist of water pouring down in the jungle of El Yunque. It did not add to the piece, made theatre a little cooler, but did enhance the theatrical experience. Some things were lost in the dialogue as the ashes were scattered. Also, the scene in the florist shop didn’t go anywhere as we lost sight of where they were during the course of their examination of life, their lives. And the scene needed a strong emotional commitment of Puerto Rican intensity. Also, the scenes with the characters on the computers lacked creativity the stage needs. It might be fine for television, but this is the theatre and needed an additional boost.
The understudies in this show were Maria Costa, Marcus Cruz, Faqir Hassan, Fiona Rene, Anny Rosario, and Montae Russell. The new understudy was Gabrielle Madé.
Other members of the crew are as follows:
Raquel Barreto – Costume Design
Jane Shaw – Sound Design
Hannah Wasileski – Projection Design
Rosalinda Morales and Pauline O’Con – Casting
Amy Christopher and Marcia DeBonis – New York Casting
David S. Franklin – Production Stage Manager
Michelle Blair – Stage Manager
Run! Run! The play is available on Kindle.