Friday, November 4, 2011

Theater Review: Water by the Spoonful -- Hartford Stage

Zabryna Guevara, Armando Riesco. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Internet Meets Live Drama in Innovative, Insightful Premiere at Hartford Stage
By Lauren Yarger
Avatars appear as the users of an internet support forum for crack addicts sign on to chat, but the action doesn't take place in cyberspace. It unfolds on stage as Hartford Stage presents the world premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes' moving play Water by the Spoonful.

Commissioned by the theater company, Water by the Spoonful is the first play to make it from the Aetna New Voices Fellowship to a fully staged production at Hartford Stage.

The lives of family members and complete strangers merge with their connection on the support site administered by Odessa Ortiz (Liza Colon-Zayas), user name Haikumom, who encourages the members with off-the-cuff haikus and support as they try to get and stay sober. Forum regulars are Chutes&Ladders (Ray Anthony Thomas), an IRS customer service rep whose habit lost him a relationship with his son, and Orangutan (Teresa Avia Lim), teaching English while searching for her roots in Japan.

They are joined by Fountainhead (Matthew Boston), a highly paid corporate executive who is in denial about his addiction while desperately trying to hide it from his wife. Chutes&Ladders isn't impressed, but finds it hard to confront reality himself: he resists reaching out to his son, or exploring the possibility of a real-life meeting with Orangutan.

Davis McCallum directs masterfully, having the characters on stage interacting, while visually communicating as though by instant message. They don't look directly at each other, and no real keyboards or computer screen are used. Their avatars (graphic pictures with their user names) are projected onto to a tile-motifed set that also houses Odessa's near-squalor house (Neil Patel, set and projection design). Skilled lighting (Russell H. Champa), sound design (Bray Poor), some John Coltrane with original music (J. Michael Friedman), costumes by Chloe Chapin and a few props do the rest to create the innovative presentation. All of the performances are first rate as well.

Besides the interaction online, events from the real lives of the characters play out too. Odessa, fighting her own addiction, is estranged from her son, Elliot, who was raised by her sister when his biological mother was unable to care for him. He tries to cope with his feeling of abandonment, especially in the face of Mami Ginny's impending death, while being haunted by his experiences in Iraq -- literally -- by a  ghost (Demosthenes Chrysan) who keeps saying something in Arabic.

Providing some comfort is Elliot's close relationship with his cousin, Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara),  an adjunct professor of music, who also loves Ginny for providing harmony in the Philadelphia family's dissonance.
Hudes (In the Heights) combines compelling characters, humor, insights and modern technology to ask questions about how we relate to each other and to provide a window into how real face-to-face relationships differ from those online and define who we are. The playwright definitely has the "I" part of IT down: this play is Interesting, Innovative, Imaginative, Intriguing, Insightful and Internet-savvy. OK, we'll throw in a  "T" for Terrific as well. It is the second part in a trilogy that began with Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, a Pultizer-Prize finalist, which McCallum directed in New York.

Water by the Spoonful runs through Nov. 13 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2. Tickets range from $23 to $69 and are available by calling 860-527-5151 or online at www.hartfordstage,org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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