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OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL REVIEW

'Water by the Spoonful'

OSF play examines connection and isolation in the modern world
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Left to right: Vilma Silva, Celeste Den, Bruce A. Young and Barret O’Brien are in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo courtesy of Jenny GrahamPhoto courtesy of Jenny Graham
 Posted: 2:00 AM April 02, 2014

Yazmin, one of the central characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and the cousin of another, tells her music students in one scene how saxophonist John Coltrane in his 1964 masterpiece "A Love Supreme" used dissonance as a path to resolution. By the next year, she says, Coltrane's music had changed, and there was still dissonance, but the chance for happy endings had passed.

Whether or not you agree with that take on the mercurial Trane's arc into free jazz, it's a provocative metaphor for the flow of the painful lives of the characters in Hudes' 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a scintillating production of which opened Sunday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's intimate Thomas Theatre, directed by Shishir Kurup.

The dissonance in the lives of two families — an actual, biological, extended Puerto Rican-American family, and the habitues of a chat room for recovering crack addicts — may indeed make sense to the participants only later, as the things they had to go through to connect to a place of healing. But certain doors, once opened, must be entered before they close for good.

Elliot (Daniel José Molina), Yazmin's cousin, has come back from serving with the Marines in Iraq with a gimpy leg and some demons involving an Iraqi civilian (Barzin Akhavan) who said something that Elliot can't get out of his head. Elliot and Yazmin (Nancy Rodriguez) are caring for Elliot's adoptive mother, Ginny, whom we never meet, who took the boy in when Odessa (Vilma Silva), Ginny's crackhead sister, could no longer function.

But despite the theme of nurturing and the family jokes, this is not a kitchen-sink drama. Hudes quickly turns the spotlight on another family of sorts, the recovering crack addicts who meet in an online chat room. The link between the seemingly unrelated groups — other than pain — is the woman Odessa, who runs www.recovertogether.com under the name of Haikumom.

"Water by the Spoonful" has contemporary written all over its sleeve. It's part paean to and part critique of a wired world that immerses us in all-encompassing connectedness but also seems to create new hells of isolation that make true connectedness more remote than ever.

This is reflected in Sibyl Wickersheimer's shimmering set, a series of computer-screen-like squares that beep and bleep and shift in the moody lighting and morph as needed into coffee shops, train stations and other exigencies of the carbon-based life forms that move among them.

Still, there's a lot of nurturing, and gauging of nurturing. Elliot is nurturing Ginny as she draws nearer to death. Yaz would probably nurture Elliot more, but she could use a little nurturing herself, as her husband has left her and a divorce is looming. Odessa herself will come in for some extremely tender nurturing.

Hudes deftly keeps several balls in the air at once, as scenes of the extended Ortiz family alternate with scenes from cyberspace. Chat room newbie John (Barret O'Brien), aka Fountainhead, a yuppie living what he paints as a wonderful life, says he has a mere Saturday kind of addiction, a denial-ridden claim that sets off long-timers Clayton (Bruce A. Young), aka Chutes and Ladders, and Madeline (Celeste Den), aka Orangutan.

Clayton is a paper pusher and failed father who has been clean and sober for years but is sliding deeper into a moribund middle age. Madeline, who was raised by an adoptive American couple and is three months' clean, is heading for Japan to find her birth parents.

Clayton, in particular, calls John out, pushing him to admit he's a crackhead.

The connection between the two groups is Odessa, who many years ago gave up Elliot to Ginny after a family tragedy caused by her addiction in a crisis that gave the play its name. Now clean and sober for years, she seeks online atonement as nurturing cyber-mom Haikumom.

Although Elliot's struggle with PTSD, as personified by the ghost (Akhavan) that keeps accosting him, is the first thread we follow, and one we return to again and again, "Water" is a true ensemble piece, with each character presented in three dimensions and living color.

Molina is a strong and conflicted Elliot, even if he's a little fresh-faced for a veteran Marine with PTSD. Rodriguez inhabits Yaz so thoroughly she disappears into her. Silva creates an Odessa to break your heart. The chat room characters are rendered with equal relish.

To serve all this up in a little over two hours is no small feat. Hudes does this in part by sketching the most telling details of the story and the relationships and trusting the intelligence of the audience to jump over the gaps.

In a production as soundly conceived and imaginatively presented as this one, that makes for theater pleasure in the extreme. If there are flaws — an existential decision by Chutes and Ladders involving Orangutan strikes a chord of romantic dissonance on the willing-suspension-of-disbelief meter — we happily give them a pass.

Everybody in "Water by the Spoonful" is a member of a family, and each is damaged. Most have confronted their demons with denial and/or addiction, but each is still seeking connection and healing. There is the sense that there are more ways now than ever that lives can connect to damage or heal one another.

It's tough to figure Hudes' intent in putting the theory of Coltrane's 1965 work as devoid of hope in Yaz's mouth, since the music sometimes achieved a kind of transcendence even when the bottom dropped out. Maybe the seekers of "Water by the Spoonful" have a lot to let go of before they find that healing connection.

"Water by the Spoonful" is the middle play in a trilogy about the Ortiz family. The first, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The third, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," opened last year at Chicago's Goodman and this month is at off-Broadway's Second Stage. This is the only one I've seen, and it grooves like vintage '64 Trane perhaps looking ahead, since what resolution these characters manage to find at this point is never final but always provisional.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.


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