Regional Reviews: Boston
Splendor, Water by the Spoonful
Two plays currently at local theaters plumb the depths of human connection and examine the definitions of community; are virtual relationships more or less nurturing than face-to-face contact? Can you project your genuine self through cyberspace more comfortably than across the dining room table? What does it take to escape the ghosts of the past and make a better future?
Artistic Director Shawn LaCount and Dramaturg Ilana M. Brownstein have collaborated with Greenidge to develop Splendor over the course of the last four years, and LaCount directs an ensemble cast of ten actors, all but one of whom play their characters as both children and adults. Their personalities are distinctive, but they are united by their disappointments in life and their strong connection to a shared community. Viewing Bellington as the source of their deepest pain, some wish to escape, while others feel compelled to remain, reliving the past they cannot change. Set Designer Cristina Todesco makes it a stark world with shadows and moods imposed by Lighting Designer Jen Rock and Sound Designer Arshan Gailus.
Fran Giosa (Alexandria King) and Nicole Gazza Mahoney (Molly Kimmerling) are best friends at the age of eight, undeterred by Fran's mixed race and Nicole's less-than-welcoming mother. King and Kimmerling capture the unencumbered joy of two little girls so well that it is a marvel to see their rich portrayals of the older (35), wiser women they become. Although she managed to get awayall the way to Chestnut HillFran has moved back with her young daughter following her divorce, back to the squabbles with her shoplifting mother Gloria (Becca Lewis), her frustration with her aimless brother Anthony (Danny Mourino) and the cold shoulder from her high school peers. In contrast to her old friend, Nicole lives hand to mouth in a troubled marriage with high school sweetheart Mike Mahoney (Michael Knowlton) and their five kids, bewildered that she has to clip coupons to get by. Her other friends Colleen Madden Colby (Hannah Cranton) and Lisa Murphy Vitello (Nicole Prefontaine) aren't much better off with four and five kids respectively, but at least their husbands have steady employment.
Greenidge sketches a variety of charactersworking class, school counselor, butcher's sonand LaCount gives his actors the space to flesh them out. Greg Maraio is particularly impressive as Dave Murphy whose teenage son lost his life on a dare. He struggles to maintain a positive spirit, fueled by a little afternoon delight, Dunkin' Donuts coffee and snippets of conversation with strangers he meets in line. When his remedies fail him and Dave is crushed by the weight of his grief, Maraio's collapse is devastating and raw. As his daughter, Prefontaine channels her pain into biting cynicism, only letting her guard down briefly with her father.
Dressed by Costume Designer Katherine Stebbins in skin tight pants and leopard print high heels, Gloria is quite the character, simultaneously downtrodden and unapologetic. Lewis brings her to life with a harsh Boston accent, exaggerated mannerisms and a wobbly gait. Although Gloria did the best she could as a single mother, she's not much of a role model to Fran and Anthony. Their African-American father Clive Cooper (James Milord) has not been in their lives, but Anthony sets out to rectify the situation in a highly fraught scene. Clive's significant other Aline (Obehi Janice), a former guidance counselor at the high school, tries to smooth things between father and son, shining a spotlight on the dark corners of her relationship with Clive.
Each of the scenes is a mini-drama unto itself, but with a common undercurrent of sadness and desperation. Everyone has a secret or some part of themselves they are loathe to share, fearing more hurt or disappointment. They have long memories that inform their view of the future. When one old friend offers an overdue olive branch, it is greeted with suspicion, but it is Greenidge's attempt to insert a ray of hope into the Thanksgiving diorama. Nothing turned out the way any of them expected, but the holiday gathering may be a chance to finally move forward. A little honest communication will go a long way in helping the community to heal and a little more clarity will make the entire Splendor shine like some of its parts.
The Lyric Stage Company production is sensitively directed by Scott Edmiston, getting star quality performances from an ensemble cast of equals. The structure of the play puts six of the seven roles on a level playing field in terms of heft and their importance to the story, yet the seventh (seemingly minor) character has a singular influence on Elliot's mental state. Gabriel Rodriguez (Elliot) and Sasha Castroverde (Yazmin Ortiz) play cousins who are as close as siblings, connected by their mutual admiration and love for each other and their Aunt Ginny, Elliot's surrogate mother who has a terminal illness. Johnny Lee Davenport (online moniker Chutes & Ladders), Theresa Nguyen (nickname Orangutan) and Gabriel Kuttner (Fountainhead aka John) comprise the online group who form a family by choice. Mariela Lopez-Ponce is the bridge between the two worlds of the play as Haikumom, the administrator of the chat group, aka Odessa, Ginny's sister and Elliot's birth mother. Zaven Ovian appears as a professor, a policeman and an Arabic-speaking ghost.
Hudes establishes that each of her characters is damaged and searching for their place in the world as they recover. Their success or failure seems to correlate with the degree to which they are willing to accept the help of others versus going it alone. In contrast to Odessa's highly charged and dysfunctional relationship with Elliot, Haikumom is the earth mother figure to her little band of followers, dispensing advice and wisdom born of many hard years. For her, the computer offers both purpose and salvation, connecting her with people who share and understand her experience. Chutes & Ladders has a good job, but little else in his life outside of the group. He keeps an eye on the others like a doting father, perhaps because he is estranged from his own son. Conversely, Orangutan is a risk-taker who craves his attention to offset the disappointment she has caused her parents. Fountainhead is a fledgling in his recovery and new to the group, fighting against the tried and true counsel of the chatters until he is called upon to step up his level of commitment to them in a crisis.
As a college professor and the family caretaker, Yazmin is the most healthy of the bunch, but her marriage has just ended in divorce, giving her reason to consider her own failures. Still, she is an anchor for her cousin and Castroverde stands out in the role, giving the character warmth, intelligence and vulnerability. Rodriguez is electrifying, capturing the mix of anguish and frustration Elliot feels, portraying the horror he experiences when his demons resurface, and drawing the audience in to care about this battle-scarred young man. Whenever he and Ovian's ghost share a scene, they give the encounter an indelible authenticity that is chilling.
The actors playing the denizens of the chat room meet the challenge of conveying their personalities mostly by facial expressions and tone of voice, as they spend most of their time seated under spotlights, as if in front of a monitor. Although they expand their territories somewhat in the second act, most of the exposition is done before that and Davenport, Nguyen and Kuttner have shown us who they are in their online conversations. When Haikumom and Fountainhead meet in a coffee shop, their face-to-face encounter is fraught with tension that is augmented when Elliot and Yaz make an appearance to try to get money from Odessa and make negative assumptions about her companion. Lopez-Ponce shifts her demeanor on a dime from the open, supportive chat buddy to the defensive, angry mother who gets no slack from her son, and is the center of attention later in one of the most powerful scenes in the play which defines its title.
Scenic Designer Richard Wadsworth Chambers, Lighting Designer Karen Perlow and Video Designer Amelia Gossett work hand in hand to create the two worlds of the play, reality and virtual reality. Hanging above the stage is a forest of dangling wires and half a dozen monitors which alternately show online conversations or pictures that represent the various settings, such as the florist shop and the coffee shop. Elisabetta Polito's costume designs are true to the characters' personalities, with Yaz wearing fashionable professional outfits, Orangutan sporting urban grunge, and the ghost attired in typical Arab robe and keffiyah with an eerie mesh mask over his face. Sound Design and original music is by Dewey Dellay, and Omar Robinson is the Fight Choreographer.
Hudes received a 2008 Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical for In the Heights (which won the award for Best Musical that year), and the ability to portray the heart and soul of a community that she showed in that work carries over to Water by the Spoonful. However, she expands upon the definition of community here to include the very real connections that people make in the virtual world. Edmiston and company show us the travails involved in the search and the disappointments or triumphs that result.
Splendor, performances through November 16 at Company One at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.companyone.org. Written by Kirsten Greenidge, Directed by Shawn LaCount, Dramaturgy by Ilana M. Brownstein; Set Design, Cristina Todesco; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Lighting Design, Jen Rock; Costume Design, Katherine Stebbins; Properties Design, Lisa Guild; Production Stage Manager, Erin Basile; Assistant Stage Managers, Lauren Contard, Veronica Haakonsen; Dialect Coach, Liz Hayes
Cast: Alexandria King, Becca Lewis, Danny Mourino, James Milord, Obehi Janice, Molly Kimmerling, Michael Knowlton, Hannah Cranton, Nicole Prefontaine, Greg Maraio
Water by the Spoonful, performances through November 16 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com. Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Richard Wadsworth Chambers; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design/Composer, Dewey Dellay; Video Design, Amelia Gossett; Fight Choreographer, Omar Robinson; Production Stage Manager, Julianne Menassian; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Setayesh
Cast (in alphabetical order): Sasha Castroverde, Johnny Lee Davenport, Gabriel Kuttner, Mariela Lopez-Ponce, Theresa Nguyen, Zaven Ovian, Gabriel Rodriguez- Nancy Grossman