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Water by the Spoonful

The lifeblood of the theatre is new work. It's what keeps art relevant in the present, while still appreciating the masterworks of the past. Now that we are in the second chapter of Curious Theatre Company's second foray into serial storytelling, we are beginning to recognize a method to the troupe's madness: gritty playwrights with a gift for words, rhythm, dissonance, and resolution.

Water by the Spoonful set by Markus Henry
Water by the Spoonful
Set: Markus Henry
Lighting: Dick Devin
Sound/projections: Brian Freeland
Photo: Michael Ensminger
After the stunning success of the triptych of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Cajun-flavored, Brother/Sister plays, Curious now bestows on us Quiara Alegría Hudes' The Elliot Plays, a groundbreaking Puerto Rican odyssey that stretches from North Philadelphia to Iraq, San Diego, Puerto Rico, and Japan, as well as into cyberspace and dreamscapes.

In this regional premiere of Water by the Spoonful (2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), the playwright's munificent imagination is matched by director Chip Walton and his talented design team and cast, whose clarity of vison navigate us through Hudes' vibrant stream of consciousness.

Gabriella Cavellero as Odessa
Gabriella Cavellero as Odessa
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Six years after Elliot's (Thony Mena) tour of duty in Iraq began, he is home amongst his family and friends, faced with challenges as daunting as the killing fields of the Middle East and Arabia: his birth mother, Odessa (Gabriella Cavallero) mediates an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts; his mother who raised him is dying from cancer; the only work he can find embarrasses him; and he is haunted by a Iraqi ghost (Damon Guerrasio), the first man he killed in action. His only commiseration comes from his cousin, Yazmin (GerRee Hinshaw).

Meanwhile, Odessa's anonymous cyberspace comrades-in-recovery—Orangutan (Jenna Moll Reyes), Chutes & Ladders (Abner Genece), and Fountainhead (William Hahn)—provide the virtual equivalent of tough love, trying to keep each other from using.

Odessa is the compelling central figure of the drama, one part Buddhist (which makes her an effective den mother for the group), and another part failed mother (which makes her an emotional rollercoaster, easily untracked by her son Elliot's deep resentments). Cavellero's embodiment of all these facets is jaw-dropping, a saint and sinner, a mother and a user.

Bill Hahn as Fountainhead
Bill Hahn as Fountainhead
Photo: Michael Ensminger
During Odessa's untracking, she is nursed by Fountainhead (Hahn)—a complete turnabout in behavior for the former high-rolling, fast-lane corporate entrepreneur and egotist. Hahn turns his famous physical and emotional intensity inside out, in what must go down as the most surprising catharsis of the bunch, thanks in no small part to some straight talk from Chutes&Ladders (Genece).

Genece constructs what seems an imperturbable and impenetrable wall around Chutes&Ladders' life of quiet desperation, working as an accountant for the IRS, a "GS4 paper pusher" as he calls it; but, as the chatroom conversations progress, Genece deftly reveals emotional cracks in Chutes&Ladders' wall, thanks to the equally biting remarks from Orangutan (Reyes).

Jenna Moll Reyes as Orangutan
Jenna Moll Reyes as Orangutan
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the crack-recovery chatroom world of brutal honesty, Orangutan's self-assessment and self-prescriptive rehabilitation sets a high bar, even if she struggles, just like her comrades, in keeping her head above water. Reyes' humorous characterization provides a winning light touch to the story and, romantically speaking, a demonstration of the rare love that transcends age and physical stereotyping.

Living one day at a time and making progressive choices in the moment is not only the prescription for successful recovery, it is the prescription for a successful life. Hudes' metaphor for this is the bed of John Coltrane's masterworks that she prescribes as segues and to which she pays respect in a brief glimpse of Yazmin's (Hinshaw) lectures as an adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore College.

Thony Mena as Elliot and GerRee Hinshaw as Yazmin
Thony Mena as Elliot
and GerRee Hinshaw as Yazmin
Photo: Michael Ensminger
As the least damaged of Hudes' characters, Yazmin's improvisational talents keep Elliot (Mena) honest and give new life to the chatroom. Hinshaw's upbeat, imperturbable Yaz is the emotional anchor of the drama.

The nightmare of years at war in Iraq (which we experienced in the prequel to this play) follow Elliot home to north Philly, haunting him alongside his ever-present familial dysfunctions. Mena is Marine strong as he stoically faces down these challenges, although the bitterness toward his mother shows through as he spits out sarcastic judgments. Yet, when it comes time to face the effects of his psychological assaults on Odessa, Mena achieves perfect clarity, providing a catharsis that promises an altogether different set of circumstances for the third and final installment of this story coming up in January, 2017.

Excellent supportive work by Guerrasio as Professor, Ghost, and Policeman.

Curious Theatre Company's presentation of Water by the Spoonful, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, runs through October 15, 2016. For tickets: curioustheatre.org.

Bob Bows



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