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The Happiest Song Plays Last

The much anticipated third and final installment of Quiara Alegría Hudes' The Elliot Plays, a groundbreaking tale of Puerto Rican immigrants in the U.S., is, as the title suggests, filled with music, while Elliot continues to struggle with the literal ghosts from his past—most insistently from his childhood in Philadelphia and his tours of duty in Iraq.

Thony Mena as Elliot
Thony Mena as Elliot
Photo: Michael Ensminger
While the play stands on its own, it's impressionistic scenic progression, using social media and electronic messaging that skips around the globe—Are we at war, or making a movie? Are we in love, or acting?—is in many ways best understood in the context of the themes and stories that Hudes has woven together throughout the tryptich, beginning with the culture of war passed from grandfather to father to son, to the women who provide herbal and familial healing for their husbands and sons, and to the everyday perils of living in the barrio, including the hard-core drug scene.

Satya Chavez as La Cantante
Satya Chavez as La Cantante
Photo: Michael Ensminger
As is the case with all minorities who have immigrated to the states, the antidote to societal prejudices and economic marginalization is the family, and Hudes provides us a deeply enriching experience of Puerto Rican camaraderise, food, and musical exuberance, the latter led by Satya Chavez, the musical director, as La Cantanel. Chavez' plaintive and soulful vocals and steady work on the cuatro, "Puerto Rico’s national instrument, much like the guitar but with a metallic twang" (as Hudes puts it), along with appearances by the ensemble as her latin jazz backup band (think "Buena Vista Social Club") and compelling alternate vocals (Merhy Eslaminia and Rey Lopez), flavor the proceedings.

Thony Mena (Elliot) tosses off bravado as if he invented it, fully inhabiting Elliot's macho public persona, yet deftly revealing the lingering pain he bears, from the battlefields of Iraq, to his cousin and long-time confidant, Yaz (GerRee Hinshaw), and his co-star, Shar (Eslaminia).

Brian Landis Folkins as Lefty and GerRee Himshaw as Yaz
Brian Landis Folkins as Lefty
and GerRee Himshaw as Yaz
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Yaz carries over her role as the emotional anchor from the previous play to this one, not only serving as her cousin Elliot's sounding board and ego check, but as her poor neighborhood's soup kitchen and as the emotional support for Lefty (Brian Landis Folkins), a mentally-challenged neighborhood crossing-guard. Hinshaw moves through all of these varied roles with aplomb, maintaining the matriarchal throughline of the trilogy as well as continuing it beyond the bounds of the story, with her own lover, Augustin (Lopez), an aging musician.

Mehry Eslaminia as Shar
Mehry Eslaminia as Shar
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Elliot's experiences in Iraq, in the first part of the tryptich, come back to him, full force, on a film set in Jordan via Ali (Hussein Forouzandeh), the production's Arabian consultant, liaison, and gofer, and Shar. Forouzandeh's well-tempered enthusiasm and conveyance of Ali's sublime sense of humor provide a telling and funny cultural contrast to Elliot's shoot-first-ask-questions-later American style.

Shar is a mix of Hollywood star power, southern California entitlement, and multicultural enigma. Eslaminia's nuanced work with each of these facets is delightful, particularly her feisty repartee with Elliot, which challenges him in new ways.

Hossein Forouzandeh as Ali
Hossein Forouzandeh
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Folkins' work as Lefty is heart-rendering. Lopez brings a sly reticence to Augustin, which plays nicely against Hinshaw's strong-willed Yaz.

With this production and the completion of Curious Theatre Company's second foray into serial storytelling (The Brother/Sister plays being the first), we must deem this venture an unqualified success, having brought us deeply enriching close-ups of two colorful and soulful cultures, with the promise of more to come.

Thony Mena as Elliot
Thony Mena as Elliot
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Director Chip Walton does a marvelous job telling the tale, with a perfectly cast ensemble, great musical interludes, and excellent scenic design (Markas Henry), lighting (Richard Devin), costuming (Kevin Brainerd), and sound (Brian Freeland).

Curious Theatre Company's presentation of The Happiest Song Plays Last, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, runs through February 18th. For tickets: http://curioustheatre.org.

Bob Bows



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