Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Miles Gaston Villanueva, Sabina Zuniga Varela, George Psarras, Zilah Mendoza, Anna Ishida, Anthony J. Haney, Patrick Kelly Jones
Directed by: Leslie Martinson
When: August 20 through September 14, 2014
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $19-$74 (discounts available). Visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
in the hard life of addiction
Quiara Alegría Hudes' powerful 'Water by the Spoonful'
It's ugly, where addiction is.
We don't like to look at it, we don't like to think about it.
But it's easy to understand why Quiara Alegría Hudes won a Pulitzer Prize for her script for "Water by the Spoonful," which is mostly about some crack addicts and the damage they have done, and what they have to do to save themselves and each other.
TheatreWorks is staging the regional premiere of this excellent play at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
It's a grim story, and may seem alien to theater-goers who don't happen to be aware of the horrors of crack cocaine. The topic is not new to me because I had read musician David Crosby's amazing autobiography, "Long Time Gone," in which he describes his own descent into a subhuman, immoral behavior, when he was using crack.
His book is a nightmarish horror story, but fascinating and well worth reading.
"Water by the Spoonful" is brilliant and touching, and can help audiences learn something about a horror of modern life, and maybe encourage some pity and understanding.
It is the second in Hudes' "Elliot" trilogy, which began with "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," in 2007, and continues after "Water by the Spoonful" with "The Happiest Song Plays Last," which premiered in 2013 in Chicago, then opened off-Broadway earlier this year.
"Water by the Spoonful" opens with Elliot and his cousin, Yazmin, waiting for a professor who speaks Arabic. Elliot is desperate to have something translated. He is also in a hurry, because he has a shot at a modeling/acting job, which would be an improvement over his dead-end job at a sandwich shop.
The phrase that is translated is "Can I please have my passport back?"
As the play unfolds, we hear a ghost say that phrase to Iraq War veteran Elliot, again and again.
And we meet Odessa, known online as Haikumom, who moderates an online forum for recovering crack addicts. Her regulars are Orangutan, who's in Japan, and Chutes&Ladders, who is in San Diego. They are joined by a newbie, Fountainhead, who gets rough treatment from Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders, because Fountainhead brags about his wealth, and is obviously dishonest about his addiction.
But Haikumom stays nice. She's seen this before, she knows the newbie needs help, and it will take him a while to be honest with everyone. Meanwhile, the saintly Ginny, whom we never see, dies. She had raised Elliot, her nephew, who feels guilty about not doing enough for her.
Guilt is a theme here. People have a lot to beat themselves up about.
Odessa learns about Ginny's death by reading a newspaper. Ginny was her sister. Elliot is her son.
Part of what makes this play effective is how Hudes slowly unfolds her story, as we learn about each person's suffering, about each person's guilt, about each person's desire to do better. Orangutan, who was born Japanese but adopted by a family in Maine, is now in Japan to teach English. "I was never one to actually have an experience," she says, while describing her new life.
Rather than me recounting more of this deeply emotional story, go see the play, and let Hudes' script do its work. The first act ends with a heart-rending performance by Zilah Mendoza as Odessa, and the second act is powerfully moving, as people who had lost much of their humanity regain some of it. Futures may not always seem bright, but they seem possible, which is something new for some of these recovering addicts.
There are problems with this production, problems that spring from one of its assets: Erik Flatmo's beautiful set. It's a wonderful thing, stretching from the stage to way high and back again, five levels, with little setlets that show us Philadelphia, Japan, San Diego, and Puerto Rico. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting and Erik Scanlon's beautiful projections help take us to those places, and online to Haikumom's chat room.
When the characters are online, typing to each other, the play doesn't much bother with things like keyboards and computers. The characters just shout at each other, from stage left and stage right, and from different levels of the set, which is built, perhaps, too far back.
But with one exception, they are not using individual microphones, which means the shouting is needed, for the sake of being heard in the large auditorium.
It doesn't work. It's too hard to understand the dialogue in that echoing space, too much of the time, and it robs the actors of the ability to be subtle with a line. Whatever has to be said has to be SHOUTED, and while that may have been the way of theater in the 1800s, these days it seems needlessly annoying.
And it increases the feeling of distance between the play and the audience. More intimacy is needed.
A couple of ladies with whom I spoke as they were leaving the show early, at intermission, said it all just seemed too chaotic and confusing. Too bad; those ladies missed a good show, despite that annoyance.
Still, it's a good cast, as well it might be, since Leslie Martinson is directing, and she is the casting director of TheatreWorks.
Patrick Kelly Jones, as Fountainhead, was the first I noticed who somehow overcame that feeling of distance, portraying his nervous, insecure and desperate character immediately, rather than just being another person shouting from the heights of the enormous set.
And all the other actors, over the course of the play, also became flesh and blood over the course of the show, as their stories develop. Anthony J. Haney is wonderful as Chutes&Ladders, showing that character struggling to find his bravery for the sake of a friend.
Mendoza takes her character from being the chatroom saint to being a woman nearly destroyed by grief over terrible mistakes she made while a full-blown addict.
Anna Ishida seemed to take a while to get her character, Orangutan, fully realized, on opening night. She's quite good by the second act.
George Psarras is the utility infielder, playing the language professor, the ghost, and a Japanese policeman.
Miles Gaston Villanueva has a lot he shows us as Elliot, who has some real issues to deal with; it would be fun to see him play the other parts in the Elliot trilogy.
Sabrina Zuniga Varela is the token sane person in this play, staying charming and supportive and doing what she believes is right. She is a music professor, and when she lectures to a class about John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," she really delivers a love of the music to us, and she says something important about the meaning of this play: "Dissonance is still a gateway to resolution."
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org