Sunday, October 5, 2014

OSF: Water By The Spoonful

Would you be interested in a play set in an internet comment thread? Sounds dreadful, right? Before seeing Water By The Spoonful, directed by Shishir Kurup at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I probably would have said that a website is not good dramatic material. Ugh. Don't go there.

Well, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes went there, with exquisite, beautiful results. 

The design roles are often the last to get mentioned in talking and writing about theatre, if they're mentioned at all, which is really a shame, because the design elements—the shape of the stage and its situation relative to the audience, the set, the costumes, sound, lighting, props—all have so much to do with the experience of theatre. Theater is enacted in physical time and space, and it is one of the most collaborative arts. 
Daniel José Molina in OSF's Water by the Spoonful

So I'm going to start there. In Water By The Spoonful, Sibyl Wickersheimer's set was nothing short of genius (she also designed the fantastic Unfortunates last year). It was abstract, spare, and simple, and added so much to the storytelling. The set consisted of 13 simple, illuminated squares, with the space of a narrow path between them. The boxes upstage were cantilevered like an open laptop. The row that formed the backdrop displayed the website community members' avatars when they were online. All of the boxes were illuminated with a shimmery and, yes, watery blue until they were needed to evoke the setting of a particular scene in watercolor washes. 

It was fascinating to watch how director Kurup used the spaces in between the squares and the spaces on the squares to create a sense of space, distance, and connection, and to help make it abundantly clear when people were interacting online and when they were interacting in person. Geoff Korf's lighting was integral to the physical set and the story, and he and Wickersheimer collaborated on video design that helped make the story come alive. The sound by John Nobori also helped make clear the distinctions between in person and online, indoors and outdoors. And costume designer Raquel Barreto avoided the OSF goofy costume trap. The costumes were appropriate and relevant, and the characters seemed comfortable wearing them.

All of these design choices were critical because the story weaves together the lives of the members of an online recovery website founded by "Haikumom" with Haikumom's family and their history. It is a powerfully moving story about some of the incredibly tough barriers that keep us apart and traces these very human characters' superheroic attempts to connect anyway. I'm not going to do a synopsis here because I'm not going to forget the story, almost anything I could say would spoil its unfolding, and really, you should drop everything and see it if it plays anywhere near you, or even read it

When you do see it, I hope you see performances as outstanding as we saw. Each character has demons and in the course of wrestling them each character is awkward, brave, annoying, heroic, clueless, wise, tragic, comic. Each actor embodies and portrays their own particular character's particular demons and journey. Vilma Silva as Haikumom gives an indelible performance of a character who is unforgivable and forgiven, irredeemable and redeemed, unfit and a blessing. Daniel José Molina's acting is like jazz; he's playing with more notes, more chords, and more combinations under his fingers than most actors. His Elliot gives the story energy and forward motion. Bruce A. Young is heartbreakingly adorable as Chutes&Ladders, and Celeste Den as Orangutan makes you want to shake her and hug her. Barret O'Brien is appropriately cringeworthy as Fountainhead and it's fascinating to watch him become a "real" person as John. Nancy Rodriguez is back after several years' absence from OSF, and we enjoyed her return as Yazmin, Elliot's cousin. 

Water By the Spoonful is actually part two of a trilogy. I don't know why OSF didn't start with the first play, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, but we're looking forward to the third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at OSF in 2015. As part of her research for these plays, Hudes interviewed her cousin Elliot, an Iraq war veteran, and other family members and wove these fictional stories out of the emotional truth of her family's experiences and relationships. The process sounds fascinating. The results are great art.