Profile doubles the impact

Richly rewarding productions of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" open in rep

“The songs are pretty, but make no mistake. Each song is a revolutionary song. Each song is a protest. An affirmation of what is truly ours. ‘We are Puerto Rican. Period.’ Today, ‘Somos Americanos. Punto.’ “

— Agustín, The Happiest Song Plays Last

*

To conclude its 20th season, with Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes as the season’s playwright, the ambitious Profile Theatre has taken on the daunting task of putting on two plays – Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last – in rotating repertory, with a single cast of nine actors, four of whom are in both plays.

These plays are contemporary – Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last premiered in Chicago in 2013 – and they feel even more so in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wreaked on Puerto Rico, which – as Agustin so eloquently says in the quote above – is part of America: “Somos Americanos. Punto.”

These two plays centered on Puerto Rican American cousins Elliot (played with passion and youthful energy here by Anthony Lam) and Yaz (given life and warmth by Crystal Ann Muñoz) feel both intimately realist and larger than life under the direction of Josh Hecht, Profile’s artistic director. Elliot and Yaz are from North Philly, but they travel (separately or together) to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt over the course of the two plays (and two other characters in Spoonful travel to Japan).

Duffy Epstein, Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Water by the Spoonful is about two seemingly disconnected storylines: addicts in a chatroom, and Elliot and Yaz’s connecting over their respective struggles: the emotional and physical toll his time as a Marine in Iraq took on him and her “failure” in the form of divorce and not knowing what she wants in life. Lam and Muñoz have the type of stage chemistry actors long for. Their banter is natural, in the way of real family members, and you will love each of them through each other’s eyes.

The chatroom is run by a lonely recovering crack addict, Odessa, known online as “Haiku Mom,” and played by Julana Torres, who is solid but understated and often overshadowed by the performances of her fellow recovering addicts in the chatroom: Bobby Bermea as an angry IRS worker who is resigned to a miserable existence until he isn’t; Akari Anderson, who perfectly embodies the resilient and inherent joy of the youngest member of the addiction chatroom despite a lifetime of reasons not to be joyful; and Duffy Epstein, who joins the chatroom late and steals the show with a maddening, heartbreaking, and ultimately vulnerable performance as someone coming to terms with his addiction.

Meanwhile, Elliot and Yaz are dealing with the loss of Elliot’s mom, Jenni. It’s a tribute to Hudes’ writing that Jenni is never seen but is one of the strongest characters in this play: the neighborhood and community mother, the activist, the last of a generation keeping her family together with her cooking and her plastic-covered couches.

In The Happiest Song Plays Last, Elliot has gone to Jordan to provide military expertise for a feature film about war. There he becomes close with the film’s female star, Shar (Dré Slaman) and the interpreter, Ali (Wasim No’mani). Elliot’s connection with these two make him question his notions about the Iraqis he encountered during the war, and about rich kids from Beverly Hills. They share secrets and difficult moments, and ultimately a victorious triumph in Egypt when Mubarak was overthrown. No’mani plays the Ghost who Elliot can’t shake in Water by the Spoonful, and it’s apt because Ali is the person he confides in about the Ghost and the one who keeps him connected to it. Shar, on the other hand, offers a future Elliot couldn’t have realized he wanted.

Meanwhile, Yaz is in North Philly, taking on the activist crown she inherited from her aunt Jenni. She has an intense and deep friendship with fellow activist (and her first music teacher) Agustín (Jimmy Garcia) that will change the course of their lives forever. Muñoz is appealing in both shows, but she’s at her best in The Happiest Song Plays Last: strong yet vulnerable, hopeful yet defeated, and finally coming into her own after struggling to find herself in the previous play.

Jimmy Garcia and Crystal Ann Muñoz in “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” Photo: David Kinder

If Yaz is the heart of this play, Agustín is its soul. And Garcia makes it immortal. He is magic on the stage – in his sweet interactions with Lefty (Epstein), his alternating cockiness and nervousness with Yaz, and the beautiful music. Assisted by Cuatro composer Gerardo Calderon, Agustín and his music push The Happiest Song Plays Last along its path.

It is a testament mostly to Garcia that this production resonates more strongly than Spoonful, the Pulitzer winner. (I don’t generally think The Happiest Song Plays Last is the better play; when I saw them for The Oregonian at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014 and 2015, I described Water by the Spoonful as “thematically stronger.”)

These are both wonderful productions, both worth watching (I recommend trying to catch them both in a day, with the matinee of Water by the Spoonful and the evening production of The Happiest Song Plays Last – there are three such opportunities remaining, on Nov. 11, 18, and 19). They are both resonant and emotional. However, the spirit of Puerto Rico – so relevant and welcome right now in America – is stronger in The Happiest Song Plays Last, thanks to the spirit of Agustín via Garcia.

At their heart, these are intimate productions about the way people connect: accidentally or on purpose; in chat rooms and in person. And Profile perfectly captures the heart of these productions with its quaint but clever set design (a cinder-block “stage” connects Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last, despite the rest of the design being entirely different). Scenic Designer Peter Ksander manages to transport us not only to Philly, but also to all those other places – and sometimes to four or five places at the same time. It’s a design feat in this small space, and it works brilliantly. The lighting by Carl Faber is also remarkable. Lights, in fact, are almost another character here: the blue used to signify one of our chatroom characters in Water by the Spoonful is online. The orange glow in The Happiest Song Plays Last. The way the lights shine lower and somehow brighter in a touching scene between Yaz and Agustín.

Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of “Spoonful” and “Happiest Song.” Photo: Ande Whyland

My only quibble from the opening performances is that the background sound sometimes overpowered the voices onstage – a kink Profile’s team has likely perfected in time for the coming performances.

In his introduction to The Happiest Song Plays Last, Hecht shared the playwright’s thoughts on Profile putting on these plays in rotating repertory. She described the plays as tent poles, and expressed her joy at having them “together for the first time.” And what a time to do it. “I think,” writes Hudes in the playbill,” looking at these plays with some distance, they are about the two-sides coin that I’ve been noticing in the wake of Maria. The despair and the tenderness, forever informing each other. In my fictional hurricane monologue in Happiest Song, Agustín parties on the brink of tragedy. A triumph in and of itself.”

Just like this two-play undertaking.

*

Playwright Hudes will join Profile for a speaking and signing event on Nov. 18. Ticket and event information here.

*

Profile Theatre’s Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last continue through Nov. 19 at Artists Repertory Theater’s Alder Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.

*

Profile is sponsoring several talkbacks and related events during the run of the two shows. A complete list, including a Nov. 10 talk by author and Purple Heart Iraqi War veteran Sean Davis, who was military consultant for the two productions, is here.

 

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *