Water by the Spoonful is the middle play of a trilogy Hudes is composing. This one, she has said, is inspired by the music of John Coltrane, specifically "A Love Supreme" (which the audience hears) and free jazz. As in the musical genre, the play stops, starts, resumes, moves fluently, stops, starts ... and so on.
Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), who is also known as Haikumom, assists people, including recovering addicts. One of the play's pivotal themes revolves around addiction. Odessa's living space is functional and that is all. Elliot (Armando Riesco), in his mid-twenties, has returned from Iraq. The play opens as he converses with his cousin Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara), who teaches music at Swarthmore. Elliot's mother, by birth, is Odessa. Orangutan (Teresa Avia Lim) recently graduated from community college and is Japanese. She, later on revealing another name, Madeleine Mays, seeks her origin. Chutes&Ladders (Ray Anthony Thomas) lives in San Diego and has a mundane desk job. He is familiar with crack-cocaine addiction. Fountainhead (Matthew Boston), living along the Main Line in Philadelphia, has made quite a bit of money but is battling drug demons. He seeks a truer self. Playing three varied roles is actor Demosthenes Chrysan.
The seven quite adept actors sometimes speak with another and at other moments directly to the audience while seemingly in two-person conversation. Sometimes the characters are disconnected. The playwright creates recognizable room interiors and other spaces which are totally separate worlds. Set designer Neil Patel opens up the stage which is marked by what appear to be tiles on both flooring and a rear wall. Everything, with time, literally opens up. For example, those sitting on a sofa or speaking at a table will disappear as the furniture is removed from below. This is effective and fluid. Facilitating all of this, and that is not a simple task, is director Davis McCallum, who has been engaged with this project as it has evolved through readings and workshops. McCallum's knowledge and ability to deliver this play is, in itself, impressive. J. Michael Friedman adds some original music and Bray Poor helps bring to life, once again, the sometimes transfixing Coltrane.
From time to time it feels as if Water by the Spoonful is foreign. The characters seek meaning and theater patrons search for it as well. Hudes hooks us early on when the initial Elliot and Yaz dialogue is reasonable and easily understood. The cousins talk about cooking and food. This is actually light and funny. The second scene, however, introduces Haikumom, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders. By the third, Elliot is visited by a ghost (actor Chrysan) and it becomes difficult to ascertain just what he is saying. Yaz sheds some light when she speaks of Coltrane and dissonance. That, perhaps, is at the core of the play.
Conflict, tension and anxiety fill Water by the Spoonful. Sometimes author Hudes pushes strongly with her created characters who are in discord. These individuals are hard with and on one another, and the potential for resolution appears to be slim. The playwright turns toward something far more agreeable as the script winds down. Those of us unfamiliar with the first play, Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue, and the third one, which is entitled The Happiest Song Plays Last, could be wondering about these components of the trilogy. Hudes studied music composition at Yale and writing at Brown. Her multi-faceted capabilities are obvious. The current Hartford Stage production, a challenge to fully master with one viewing, is provocative and brimming with life.
Water by the Spoonful continues at Hartford Stage through November 13th. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol