“El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” at Two River Theater: Bueno, muy bueno

Write what you know, the saying goes. Playwright Matt Barbot and director José Zayas both credit their Hispanic heritage with having inspired their collaboration on “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom.” After being showcased at Two River Theater’s Crossing Borders New Latino Plays festival, Barbot’s play, directed by Zayas, is premiering in a full production at Two River through February 4.

The play is about the creation of comic book character El Coquí Espectacular by an aspiring Brooklynite cartoonist of Puerto Rican descent – a Nuyorican, as that ethnicity is known. El Coquí will be the first Latino super hero, and having committed him to comic-book panels, writer/artist Alex (Bradley James Tejeda) ventures out into the dark of night dressed as his alter ego, not exactly in search of burglaries in progress or damsels in distress. “I thought it would help to get inside the character,” says Alex.

Bradley James Tejada as El Coquí Espectacular [Photos: Richard Termine]

          [The coqui is a singing tree frog native to Puerto Rico, so named for the sound of the male’s call. From such humble origins do super heroes emerge…at least this one.]

Alex’s awkward (intentionally so) impersonation as the coqui-masked super hero is at the heart of “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom.” The play is essentially a live-action cartoon, with periodic reality checks that illustrate how diversity and acceptance of Latino culture remain as much a fantasy as a caped crusader. The point is well made, by inference and example and with humor. (The playwright is less subtle elsewhere: something is “racist but we’re not supposed to say racist,” or “capitalism ruins everything good.”)

There’s a message, yes, but “El Coquí” is anything but stuffy. Staged in Two River’s versatile Marion Huber Theater, the production is as colorful and action-packed as…well, as a super-hero comic. Alex is spotted by Jessica-with-a-Y (and one s) Yesica (Flor De Liz Perez), a free-lance photographer who documents El Coquí’s nightly forays. Along the way Alex is confronted in his cartoonist’s imagination by dragon-like nemesis El Chupacabra and in his real life by ‘hood ruffian Junior, both played to comically adept extremes by Gabriel Diego Hernández.

Gabriel Diego Hernández is El Chupacabra

Grounding Alex into reality (or trying to) are his patient and well-meaning mother (Olivia Negrón) and his brother Joe (Cesar J. Rosado), whose ad agency job involves being the token Hispanic on the Voltage Cola account and who could give Alex a ‘straight’ job – if only he’d get real. (It’s the art vs. commerce dilemma; the good guys win.)  The five-member cast is uniformly excellent. Director Zayas has them relating to one-another and to the material in just the right proportions. The hinted-at romance between Alex and Yesica, for example, is sweet; the brothers come across as brothers; and their mom is just like yours – if only. (The husband and father had been an NYPD officer, who died rescuing a woman and child from their all-but certain death. In what might be the most poignant line ever, his widow says “Maybe they needed him more than we did.”)

Oddly, and despite frequent references to the brothers identifying as Nuyorican, neither of them speaks Spanish, although they grew up in the ethnic ‘hood, and had recently returned from visiting abuela en Puerto Rico. I’m not sure why that point is made. Maybe it is to stress their assimilation; but them needing Spanish language lessons is a stretch.

The superbly coordinated technical aspects are worth the price. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set rotates in and out of Alex’s bedroom-cum studio to include rooftops and a streetscape that hosts some mano-a-mano encounters, staged by UnkleDave’s Fight-House in POW! WHACK! style.  Lighting designer Zach Blane and Projections/Animation designer Alex Koch are a tandem to reckon with. Various neon-lit tubes and geometric-shaped LED screens create a live-action comic-book look and feel. Designer Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes, built under Lesley Sorenson’s supervision, are both exaggerated (the comic book characters) and accurate (the ‘hood denizens). El Chupacabra’s full-body regalia is, I say admiringly, a piece of work! “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” is as entertaining as it is important– and vice versa. (And the Bottle in the title? Duck, Yesica, duck!)

Through February 4 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1PM and 7PM; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 3PM. Tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 or online at www.trtc.org

[For anyone who doubts the impact that the inclusion of an ethnic character in mainstream media can have, I refer you to the op-ed pages in last Sunday’s New York Times: The essay “Guess Who’s Coming to ‘Peanuts’” is about Charles Shulz introducing Franklin into his strip in 1968 and the wholesome effect that first black character had, especially on children. The more things change…right?]


Blog, Professional, Regional

New Jersey Repertory Company gets religion: “The Calling” world premiere

Selected by NJPAC’s Stage Exchange as one of 30 plays by New Jersey playwrights to be produced at in-state venues, Monmouth University adjunct professor of playwriting Joel Stone’s “The Calling” is world premiering through February 4 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Set in the nave of a Catholic church, it occurred to me even before the play began that an apt sub-title might be “A View from the Altar,” so authentic is designer Jessica Parks’ set.

That musing aside, the one-act two-hander opens with Father Dan (Ames Adamson) discovering a man sleeping in one of the pews, where he had lingered after Mrs. Callahan’s funeral mass.

Ames Adamson, left, and Jared Michael Delaney in “The Calling” [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

At first wary of the stranger (“…we don’t keep cash on the premises…”), Father Dan relaxes when Carl (Jared Michael Delaney) reveals scrubs under his jacket, informing Dan that he is a nurse. Aha, I figured; the play will deal with the timely topic of male nurses in that heretofore female-dominated profession. I was mistaken. (The gender issue is not even mentioned, which may be even timelier.)

Soon enough, Carl makes a reference to the Catholic clergy’s sex-abuse scandals. Aha #2: so that would be the topic, I (and surely the rest of the audience) assumed. Wrong again. Finally, Carl tells why he had stayed after the funeral service, but, wouldn’t you know it: he’s lying about his intentions. We still don’t know. And as if the foregoing isn’t frustrating enough, even after a distasteful truth emerges, yet another underlying motive bubbles up.

The red herrings and shifting suspicions are both the strength and the weakness of Stone’s play. We’re intrigued by the by-play between the two men, as Father Dan becomes more and more interested in his interloper, but the technique requires too much exposition, some of it re-hashed, with each revelation.

Questions abound: Had the two men ever met before? What, if any, was Carl’s relationship with the deceased Mrs. Callahan, and why had he attended her funeral? What are his intentions toward Father Dan? Those and other factual questions are pretty well answered.

More interesting are some philosophical and liturgical questions: Are there degrees of Faith? Divergent but equally valid interpretations? What are a priest’s obligations to a worshiper or confessor? And just how sacrosanct is the confessional – even when a priest knows of or strongly suspects the likelihood of further grievously sinful acts. These issues are randomly addressed and not really resolved (can they ever be?), which might be the playwright’s intent, but paraphrasing those issues several times over? “Get on with it,” I thought more than once.

Those points made about the play, it’s hard to imagine it better acted or directed. Adamson and Delaney are as much different types as are their characters, but their rapport – chemistry, if you will – is established early and maintained throughout. It takes a while for Father Dan and Carl to communicate effectively, but even that awkwardness is well acted. The director of a two-character play is fully one-third of the equation; Evan Bergman’s guidance is consistently creative and on-target.

Toward the end, Carl interrupts Father Dan’s lengthy discourse on why he chose his vocation. “Are you sure this isn’t the plot of an old movie?” he asks the priest. That line, I thought, is either a mark of courage by the playwright – or a challenge to a reviewer. The benefit of the doubt here goes to Mr. Stone. He’s hardly a rookie, but this is his first full-length play after 44 years of writing shorter one-acts. He’d do well to pare this one down a bit, but “The Calling,” as it stands and however flawed, is nonetheless worthy of NJPAC (and NJ REP)’s selection.

Through February 4 at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 2PM. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

Blog, Professional, Regional

Together off-Broadway: Ballet, Bach and…Frankenstein?

It may be a tad unfair to begin a review of Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s serious play “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” by recalling the most irreverent take ever on Mary’s creation, but the blind man’s cane-tapping entrance in act one conjured up a vision of Gene Hackman igniting Peter Boyle’s thumb in Mel Brooks’s movie “Young Frankenstein.” My barely stifled chuckle stood out against the dark and stormy nature of the play, which is as much about Ms. Shelley’s creative process as it is about the work itself. It is, in fact, a story within a story, enhanced by classical compositions and evocative choreography.

The compositions are those of Franz Lizst, Franz Schubert, and Johann Sebastian Bach. The choreography is devised by Robert Fairchild, who also executes it as The Monster.

Robert Fairchild as The Frankenstein Monster [Photos: Shirin Tinati]

Playwright Eve Wolf’s concept – conflating Mary Shelley’s state of mind with the tale she wrote – is not aided by Donald R. Sanders’s direction, which muddies the lines between the two facets. The play opens with a surge of organ music reminiscent of a Bela Lugosi movie intro. We then see Mary (Mia Vallet) waking from a dream in which she envisions The Monster that she goes on to create in a horror-story contest with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Byron’s mistress during a storm. The back-and-forth between the state of Mary’s mind and of her fictional creation leaves both threads unfulfilled.

Fairchild’s periodic spasmodic writhing, while faithful in part to Shelley’s description, is nonetheless distracting. Also, as my companion observed, Fairchild’s own appearance works against Ms. Shelley’s tale. Despite some ungainly writhing and unruly behavior, the dancer-actor is hardly “of monstrous size and dreadful appearance,” nor does he act so. When The Monster is repulsed by his reflection in a pool of water (creatively imagined on Vanessa James’ set by Beverly Emmons’ lighting), the projected reflection is a blow-up of Fairchild’s face, cringe-worthy only if you are frightened by preternatural handsomeness.

[Fairchild retired as Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet to pursue a career in musical theater, garnering a Tony Award nomination (and Drama Desk win) in his 2015 Broadway debut “An American in Paris.” He was last seen as Will Parker in “Oklahoma” at London’s Royal Albert Hall.]

Mary Shelley (Mia Vallet) in the symbolic grasp of her creation

Somewhere in there is a straight play about Mary, whose scandalous elopement with the already-married poet Percy and his later drowning during a storm, not to mention her tragic losses of two infants and a toddler, could fill a mini-series.

Overall, projection designer David Bengali’s handiwork is very impressive, evoking eerie landscapes, storms and a chilling and menacing atmosphere barely matched by the context. The digital art, complemented by the live-performed classical music, creates a mesmerizing effect and would, in fact, be a satisfying hour-long concert event. At two hours, however (including intermission), “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is in limbo somewhere among the worlds of Theatre, Ballet and Concert. Until that Mary Shelley bio play appears, I’ll stick with Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman et al.

Through Jan 6 at Pershing Square Signature Center, West 42nd Street, NYC. For schedule and tickets: 212-279-4200 and online at www.romanticcentury.org 


Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Something old, something…older: Once On This Island and Twelfth Night

Re-visit with me, if you will, some of the comments I made in reviews of “Once On This Island” in Ocean Grove in 2004 (“…undistinguished, although pleasant enough”) and at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2012 (“…more a whimper than a bang”). The current Broadway revival at Circle in the Square, is indeed distinguished, and the only whimpers are in the audience as certain emotional scenes unfold. Directed by Michael Arden, the show has charm, verve and passion to spare. Not that it is over-the-top by any means; it is, in fact, a perfect blend of fantasy, romance and pathos: thoroughly satisfying in every way.

In its way, “Once On This Island is also timely – even more so, perhaps, than when it opened off-Broadway in May 1990, transferring later that year to Broadway, where it ran over a year and was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning none, alas, against that season’s juggernaut, “The Will Rogers Follies” (unlikely to be revived anytime soon). The deceptively simple theme, couched in a mystical tale of forbidden romance, is grounded in class and racial distinctions. The material by Lynn Ahrens (book & lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) is of a piece, varying seamlessly from Caribbean tempos to haunting ballads.

From left: Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore (on lap) with cast members. [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“The Parisian Woman” in D.C. (via B’way) and another tomorrow for “Annie” in NJ

I couldn’t find an English translation of Henry Becque’s 19th-Century farce La Parisienne, upon which Beau Willimon based “The Parisian Woman,” but it’s a safe assumption that the original did not include references to the U.S. Fourth District Federal Court bench or to Twitter accounts or to “fake news.” (Although that last one…who knows?)

Willimon’s modernist (and presumably loose) adaptation has been revised even since its 2013 premiere at California’s South Coast Repertory, and could possibly be up-dated again next week, depending on the news cycle. Regardless of any further tinkering, it will remain worth seeing, not least for the presence of Uma Thurman, making her Broadway debut as Chloe, the wife of a Washington D.C. tax attorney short-listed for the vacant Fourth District judgeship. Ms. Thurman is on stage throughout all five scenes of the 90-minute one-act, as dominant to the play as Chloe is to the situation. Even just sitting upstage listening to a conversation, Thurman’s Chloe exudes the confident craftiness upon which the story revolves.

Uma Thurman, Josh Lucas (with drink) and Marton Csokas in “The Parisian Woman”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Professional, Regional

The importance of seeing “Earnest” at Two River Theater

In a modern play about Oscar Wilde, he says “I have spent my life holding language up to the light, making words shimmer.” (Wilde might well have said that.) Then his 1895 play “The Importance of Being Earnest” is referred to as ‘the wittiest play in the English language.’ Nowhere is that shimmering wit more in evidence these weeks than at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ. Directed by Tony-nominated actor Michael Cumpsty and featuring a cast of Two River newbies (save one), the play, to quote one character’s assessment of another’s quip, is “perfectly phrased.”

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Blog, Professional, Regional