Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes is one of those plays that is done so rarely and superbly that when it floats past you, you drop everything and dive in. Theater22’s presentation of it at West of Lenin is no exception.
From the moment you step into the theater, your personal sense of balance is knocked out of your power by your first look at the set. It is, in a word, delicious. Set designer Montana Tippett has built a perfectly balanced bridge between two seemingly separate entities: bodies of water and the complexities of the internet; the rivulets and fibers of both closely connected, yet completely isolated. It is so very rare to see hanamichi inspired stages. Mostly because blocking and lighting can be tricky. At West of Lenin, the space seemed perfect for it, and director Julie Beckman seemed to relish in its off kilter design, as she also presented the story in the round, another challenge for a lot of directors. “Never turn your back to the audience,” is very very hard to fight.
Beckman’s direction was decidedly fitting for the overall presentation. The audience seating, being slightly elevated over the set, the set design itself– a complicated set of walkways connected like an intricate river delta, and the actors reveled in the space. This was especially manifested in the the superbly moving stillness of Keiko Green, giving that consistency of performance excellence we’ve come to expect from her.
Never once did I feel spiritually separated from the characters on stage, even while being physically separated by them. All the elements of the physicality of the set, costumes, actors, props, lighting all came together to support the play’s true theme: Being alone together.
Act 1 flows between the story of an Internet chat room for recovering crack addicts that’s moderated by profanity censoring den mother Odessa, played with heart wrenching, and sometimes soul-stripped honesty by Rose Cano, known in the story as “Haikumom” and the tale of College music adjunct professor Yaz, played by the striking and warm Yesenia Iglesias, and her PTSD-haunted Iraq War vet cousin Elliot, played with deeply layered and almost brutal tenacity by Jany Bacallao, who are dealing with the offstage death of their Aunt Ginny, Elliot’s sainted surrogate mother.
The denizens of www.recovertogether.com hold fast onto recovery culture, knowing you can’t do it alone, but purposefully separating yourself from others. These four characters had some of the best moments in the play. In addition to Haikumom, there’s 20-something Orangutan, played by Keiko Green, Japanese by birth but raised by a white family in Maine. And artless and savagely protective father figure Chutes & Ladders, presented with a lovely unassuming touch by G. Valmont Thomas, a low-level IRS pencil pusher.
The chemistry between Green and Thomas had me eating out of their hands, and eventually forgiving some of the formulaic writing from the author. The resolution of their story was sewn up a little too tidily, but the moments that passed between Green and Thomas were so enticing, so engrossing and so charming, that I didn’t care about anything else.
The fourth and final member of the online forum is newcomer, Philadelphia social elitist and obviously named Fountainhead; a highly paid computer programmer and entrepreneur with a young family who is so in denial, he comes on the forum and practically pronounces he doesn’t need anyone’s help. He is played by the charming Jeff Allen Pierce.
Major props to Pierce for portraying this character as he did. Fountainhead is someone who could so easily be portrayed as a grating, whimpering snob. Pierce was able to balance the conceited elitism with an earnest, but pointed, ignorance. When his vulnerability and acknowledgement of his own privilege comes through, Pierce generously gives the audience someone to root for, rather than someone to loathe.
In Act 2 the characters finally start to interact and affect each other’s lives. Everyone is struggling with a problem. Elliot’s ghost, played excellently by the eerily hovering Jake Ynzunza, is appearing more often. Fountainhead refuses to reveal his addiction to his wife, secrets are being kept. Acceptance of weaknesses no longer remain unquestioned as Elliot finally confronts his birth mother about her past, and challenges are faced, (just get on the damn plane, Chutes & Ladders!). You are consistently asked to be drawn inward with the tide of despair and pulled out of yourself into the undertow of relieving humor.
The final piece that struck me as exciting and remarkable for this play was how delightfully diverse it was. The whole story encompassed a dynamically fluid mix of cultural heritage and gender. It represented many different archetypes, the adventurer, the every-man, the mother, the ghost, the teacher, the support system, the soldier and the inventor. But at the same time, every character was also the escapist in their own way. Every character was separated but connected. Being together alone. Every character needed to be cleansed.
Theatre22 and director Julie Beckman have created a beautifully balanced show, allowing the weight of the story to shift from side to side, always evening out in some way. You owe it to yourself to go see this show. Water By the Spoonful starts with an ounce of water and keeps adding and adding and adding until it turns into rapids, and eventually Niagara Falls. Go and dive in.
In conjunction with the fall production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Water by the Spoonful, eSe Teatro, Theatre22 and ACT Theatre will collaborate to explore the trilogy of plays written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and to bring this material to audiences in both English and Spanish language as readings.
SATURDAY, OCT 3rd @ 8:00: ACT Theatre, reading in Spanish
Agua Por Cucharadas, tickets at www.acttheatre.org
MONDAY, NOV 2nd @ 8:00: West of Lenin, reading in English
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com
WEDNESDAY, NOV 11th @ 8:00: ACT Theatre, reading in Spanish
Elliot, Fuga de un Soldado, tickets at www.acttheatre.org
by Jennifer Noel Klouse