Agua a Cucharadas (Water by the Spoonful)
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Tantai Teatro (Puerto Rico) at LATC
Through Nov. 8
A spoiler and an alert: I’m going to gush, and you should rush, as only two performances remain of one of the year’s most remarkable and exciting productions, Agua a Cucharadas, a Spanish translation of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, making its Los Angeles debut after a previous production this past spring at San Diego‘s Old Globe. Hudes won a Tony for the book of the musical In the Heights, but the depth and mastery of her vision in this play represents a far more substantial achievement.
It is both humbling and infuriating that such a transcendent piece of contemporary theater must arrive here courtesy of an immensely talented Puerto Rican company, Tantai Teatro PR, as part of the world-class Encuentro 2014 Festival, the largest Latino theater festival yet mounted in this country, especially since in this incarnation the play speaks so forthrightly and effortlessly to an essence of the Los Angeles cultural melting-pot.
Though the middle installment of a trilogy, Water by the Spoonful does not suffer from the usual interstitial rigors of a work bridging two others: it stands vividly and vigorously on its own. The central story line, of the tribulations of returned Iraqi war veteran Elliot (Hiram Delgado) and his troubled family, achieves a fuller dimensionality by being interwoven with the intersecting story of four recovering crack addicts exchanging tough intimacies in a dedicated chatroom.
If Internet banter can pall quickly in real life, the crackling dialogue fashioned by Hudes betrays no loss of wit and bite for ostensibly being the product of furiously tapped keyboards. The English supertitles, from her original English text, sound distinctly contemporary in idiom, and as delivered in a crisply hip and intelligent Spanish, fall most persuasively on the ear. Everyone talks in a modern reupholstering of the machine-gun patter of classic Depression comedies while expressing all the more poignantly a hard-nosed tragic panorama of The Way We Live Now. For all its verbal bravado, the play mirrors the way the characters employ their external hardness to disguise an intensely felt tenderness.
Yet, for all that brio, Hudes, admirably served by a most resourceful realization by company artistic director Ismanuel Rodríguez and abetted by an imaginative “video mapping” design by Gerónimo Mercado, pointedly traps and isolates the chatroom participants in Malvina Reynolds-like “little boxes.” These are computer screen rectangles that provide a medium of desperate connection while visually conveying the loneliness of substitutes for actual human connection in the corporeal world of touch and gesture. Ranging in location from Philadelphia to Maine to Puerto Rico to Japan, the international chatroom encompasses a trenchant sense of interconnectedness frustrated by a related incapacity for intimacy.
We are privy to the ferocious intonation of these texts by the actors, even while remaining acutely aware that these messages are received as silent writings. The entire thrust of the play is the struggle to connect beyond the bounds of ritualized communication, enforced by the underlying solitude of an atomized society — circumscribed as well as empowered by the dictates of our technology. It’s no coincidence that Elliot’s professor-sister, Yaz (Yinoelle Colón) teaches jazz, invoking the innovations of John Coltrane as a vanguard of the beauty of discordance, the transforming purgative of the superficially “ugly.”
The entire company of sublimely confident actors plays with innate charisma deeply insecure characters who cannot conjure up the richness of their inner life through their demons of inadequacy and resentment – demons that habitually reduce these people to dysfunctional wraiths of themselves. For a play about addiction and abuse, its predominant pulse is one of relentless vitality, by a writer so compassionate and empathetic that the inevitable emergence of frailties and failure seem part of a complex progression from hopeless surrender to the tentative assertions of redemptive humanity.
For all the play’s vigorous originality, by Act 2, the underlying dramatic arcs gradually expose themselves as being more conventional. While this may introduce some element of predictability, it also anchors the themes to a more accessible set of epiphanies, universalizing its ethnic particulars into something just as ineluctably relevant to those privileged enough to enjoy at least some immunity from a brutal cycle of exploitation and denial of opportunity.
Despite its provenance, it would hard to imagine a more apt theatrical experience for Los Angeles audiences of all stripes. Tantai Teatro PR provides an object lesson to which Los Angeles must strive to aspire if it is to achieve a theater which embodies the fundamental uniqueness of our local experience. How about one of our institutional organizations committing some resources to dare to play catchup with a mounting of the entire Hudes trilogy? Our local talent could certainly provide innovative insights that could relate our own particular social identity to the larger political and economic issues that Hudes so profoundly reveals as being intrinsically enmeshed in our thwarted quests for personal relationships.
Tantai Teatro PR at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Dwntwn.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through Nov. 8. (866) 811-4111, www.thelatc.org