Review: Words of Hudes’ shine brightly in TheatreWorks’ ‘Water by the Spoonful’

A strong bond forms between Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Odessa (Zilah Mendoza) in "Water by the Spoonful" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Mountain View. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

A strong bond forms between Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Odessa (Zilah Mendoza) in “Water by the Spoonful” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Mountain View. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The conversations flow with an edge. Expletives are dished out, but a moderator censors anything that goes against the rules of decorum. No insults. No bad words. Support those who need it. And when dealing with a drug as powerful as crack, for many who frequent this addictive chat room, structure is paramount.

There is also Elliot, an aspiring actor who serves as another kind of artist by day – a sandwich artist at Subway. He too is searching for structure, for purpose. He moves gingerly, with metal in his wounded leg, carrying scars much deeper than what the eye can see. There are flashbacks to the war in Iraq, and inner demons that continue to haunt.

In TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Water by the Spoonful,” multiple stories arise from the pen of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning script. Hudes, who is well-known for writing the book to Lin Manuel Miranda’s music in the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” takes on a story that is rich in Latin flavors, but extremely heavy in American sensibilities. And while there were moments where the pacing moved a bit labored, namely in the first act, the production featured mostly strong performances all around accentuated powerfully by director Leslie Martinson, with bitter truths at the forefront of each character arc.

The hallmark of the production is the sharp performances of the principals. Odessa (Zilah Mendoza) is known in the cyber world of moderation as “Haikumom.” In this arena, she is solid, working off an old computer that makes the Commodore 64 look positively contemporary. She looks over others in cyberland – there is Orangutan (Anna Ishida), living in Japan after having been raised by her adopted parents in Maine. There is also anxiety-laced IRS employee Chutes&Ladders (Anthony J. Haney), who shuts down the advances of Orangutan early and often. And finally, there is newbie Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), a man who is chastised early in this chat room for being a bit too pretentious. I mean damn dude, just admit that you need rehab and that you are an addict, the group argues. There are no punches pulled, and while Haikumom works hard to keep the group civil, the need for them to maintain their territorial rights comes off strong.

Erik Flatmo's multiple-leveled set allows for the many storylines to move through the space in "Water by the Spoonful." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Erik Flatmo’s multiple-leveled set allows for the many storylines to move through the space in “Water by the Spoonful.” Clockwise from bottom left – Zilah Mendoza, Patrick Kelly Jones, Anthony J. Haney and Anna Ishida (Photo by Kevin Berne)

This is the powerful paradox that exists within Odessa. In this world, she is a necessary surrogate parent, she is needed. Yet, her failings as an actual parent are made clear from Elliot (understudying on this night for Miles Gaston Villanueva was George Psarras). Elliot and his cousin, the adjunct musicology professor Yazmin approach Odessa for financial help to assist in paying for the funeral of their beloved aunt. This discussion takes place in a coffee shop, and at this moment, the explosiveness of the family dynamic takes hold.

Moments such as these are where Hudes’ words soar, and the strength of the cast takes over, each actor playing the character’s needs with conviction and contradiction. What works so well in the script is the strength and depth that the characters have. Elliot’s demons are built in the Middle East, and unfortunately, flourish in his tough Philadelphia barrio.

The words are assisted greatly by a wonderful set by Erik Flatmo, with amazing projection work by Eric Scanlon, whose projections resonate beautifully to establish location and mood in each moment.

Hudes’ script is masterful in its duality. Yazmin’s adjunct professor career and the sharpness with which she dissects John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” while dealing with an impending divorce is just one example of the strength of these words which come together in individual, powerful and painful stories of the six characters. The characters are rich, with beautiful metaphoric lives that hurt and heal, anger and admonish.

But while satisfactory outcomes are the goal for these lives, there are no guarantees. Even when life feels as dry as a sun-soaked desert, it’s important to keep working hard to fill your survival bucket with water, even if it’s a little bit at a time.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Presents “Water by the Spoonful”
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Leslie Martinson
The Word: A first-act that moves a bit slow does not slow the piece as a whole, a masterful work by an amazing young playwright.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes which includes a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $19 – $74
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

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