Saturday, August 30, 2014

Searching For The Missing Link

If only every problem had a simple solution! Just think:
  • Wars would not need to be fought.
  • Diseases could be cured overnight.
  • New technologies could instantly develop dazzling solutions to seemingly impossible challenges.
  • Everyone could just forget all their troubles and and live happily ever after.

Those who live in a reality-based world understand that life's challenges tend to be more complex in nature. As people mature and learn new skill sets, their problem-solving techniques broaden, expand, and help them to understand more complex issues. Alexander Miller's article entitled 'Shock And Kill' Approach Cures Mice Of HIV In World First points to the complex interrelationships inherent in developing a vaccine which can cure AIDS.

During the 2014 SFDoc Fest, a curious, low-key documentary entitled Wicker Kittens focused on a group of people who form teams to compete in jigsaw puzzle-solving competitions. While they share a friendly sense of competition, the film makes it pretty obvious that most contestants are there for the camaraderie and the sheer joy of working on jigsaw puzzles. However, Mike Scholtz (the film's producer and co-editor) notes that because good puzzles can cost as much as $30 apiece, "the revelation that there is a used jigsaw puzzle store [Duluth's Second Look Books] was like a nuclear bomb in the jigsaw-puzzling community."


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Down in Mountain View, TheatreWorks recently presented the regional premiere of Water By The Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The action takes place in 2009 (six years after Elliot left for Iraq) and bounces around between locations in Philadelphia, San Diego, Japan, Puerto Rico, and most importantly, Cyberspace. As Hudes notes:
"Unlike the first play in this trilogy (Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue) which is very micro and very finely crafted, Water By The Spoonful is big and sprawling. It doesn't have neat edges and there's a lot of overlap. It's not an easy play to produce, nor is it an easy play to understand on first read or on first viewing. It's a challenging play -- a big work that has a wide lens." 
Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva)
in a scene from Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As directed by Leslie Martinson, Water By The Spoonful deals with two sets of overlapping families in which one woman plays a pivotal role. In the reality-based world, the audience meets the following characters:
  • Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva), a Puerto Rican veteran of the Iraq War who, having returned home to Philadelphia, is attending Swarthmore College while working in a Subway sandwich shop. An aspiring actor with a leg wound, Elliot has one commercial to his credit (in which he uses his dazzling smile to great effect).
  • Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Elliot's cousin who is an adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore.
  • Odessa (Zilah Mendoza) a recovering addict who is Elliot's biological mother. When Elliot was a child, his younger sister (Mary Lou) died as a result of Odessa's neglect. As a result, Elliot was raised by his aunt Ginny (Yazmin's mother) who was the anchor personality for their family as well as for most of the people in her neighborhood.
Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), Yazmin
(Sabrina Zuniga Varela), and Elliot (Miles Gaston Villaneuva) meet up in
a Philadelphia coffee shop in a scene from Water By The Spoonful
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Meanwhile, in a chat room in Cyberspace, Odessa is the maternal figure (Haikumom) in an extended family of recovering crack users who are trying to stay clean. Among the people in her support group are:
  • Orangutan (Anna Ishida), an impulsive and frequently angry young woman who has been teaching English in Japan while obsessing about visiting her birthplace to see if she can connect with her birth mother.
  • Chutes&Ladders (Anthony J. Haney), an African American government worker in his fifties who is based in San Diego and tries to avoid any kind of risk that could cause a relapse. Chutes&Ladders.and is quick to call out other members of the group for their weaknesses, imperfections, and hypocrisy.
  • Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), a new addition to the chat room who, like Haikumom, lives in Philadelphia. A successful married computer programmer who has managed to hide his crack use from his wife, Fountainhead is newly unemployed and still not ready to accept the fact that he's a crackhead.
Anna Ishida (Orangutan) and Anthony J. Haney (Chutes&Ladders)
in a scene from Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ginny's death after a long illness provides the trigger which impacts Odessa's real and online families. Elliot and Yazmin show up as Odessa is trying to counsel Fountainhead in a local coffee shop. When they pressure Odessa to chip in for the flowers for Ginny's funeral, she loses her grip and overdoses on crack cocaine. The only contact number the emergency medics can find on Odessa belongs to Fountainhead, who rushes to the hospital and suddenly finds himself forced to care for a woman he hardly even knows.

Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones) takes on the care of Odessa
(Zilah Mendoza) in Water By The Spoonful (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Erik Flatmo's multi-level unit set provides numerous playing areas for the drama's emotionally damaged characters (I kept wondering how the bathtub hidden under one platform was going to be used). However, what gives the production the fluidity it needs for storytelling purposes is the work of Erik Scanlon, whose powerful video projections allow locations to shift in the blink of an eye. As Scanlon explains:
"Projections are very integral to the story of Water by the Spoonful because of the plot element of technology (or, more specifically, the characters in the story living in various locations around the world and using the Internet as a way to connect with each other). Projections are also needed to differentiate the two vastly different worlds shown throughout the play: the 'real' world to the online 'cyber chat room' world, which will be represented (when the characters are online) as motion graphics of profile pictures with their screen names projected onto the set in a cyber universe. For Water by the Spoonful, every projection design element was pretty much mapped out and discussed weeks prior to starting tech. We discussed Leslie Martinson's vision of the show and what aesthetic every projection element should have (whether it be a literal translation of a location or a more artistic interpretation of a scene)."
Erik Flatmo's set for Water By The Spoonful show the center
panel being used  to project the Internet avatars for its characters
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I assisted on projections for the revival of Brigadoon at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago earlier this year and instead of just painting a stagnant Scottish forest onto a set, we used projections to not only show a forest but an animated forest that we could move through for transitions, with the help of motion graphics. On the same set dressing, we could then change to a field of heather or a 1940s New York ballroom with the push of a button. Projection design really made an older show like Brigadoon not only more alive and exciting but practical as well. Erik Flatmo, the scenic designer, has given us a beautiful two-story set that ultimately serves as a blank canvas to project the various locations onto. In the show, projections will help represent everywhere from a Subway sandwich shop to a college campus, a church to a Japanese train station."
Erik Flatmo's unit set is transformed into a lush Puerto Rican
rainforest  by Eric Scanlon's projections in Water By The Spoonful
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scanlon's projections become especially appealing when Elliot and Yazmin travel to Puerto Rico to scatter Ginny's ashes by a waterfall in a tropical forest. With Elliot deciding to head for Los Angeles so he can try his luck at becoming an actor -- and Yazmin temporarily standing in for Odessa as the chat room's moderator, one looks forward to seeing the final part of the Elliot trilogy (The Happiest Song Plays Last).

TheatreWorks has put together an exceptionally strong ensemble with powerful performances coming from the always impressive Anna Ishida as well as Zilah Mendoza, and Sabina Zuniga Varela. As Fountainhead, Patrick Kelly Jones continues to impress with his deep emotional commitment and stunning versatility. Miles Gaston Villaneuva delivers an impassioned, muscular performance as Elliot while giving new meaning to the phrase "arms and the man."

Hudes (who wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Mirand's hit musical, In The Heights) is very much reflected in the character of Elliot's cousin, Yazmin. She was also deeply influenced by jazz in her structuring of Water By The Spoonful. In the following clip, she explains how John Coltrane became a powerful force in her creative process.


Performances of Water By The Spoonful continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through September 14 (click here to order tickets).

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