Water by the Spoonful Uses Ugliness as Material

Adrian Baxter’s saxophone performance was my introduction to Artist Repertory Theatre. Jazz relates to Water by the Spoonful’s supporting character Yazmin Ortiz (Crystal Ann Muñoz), and the choice to have Baxter play music was a risky one.

The progressive town where Esperanza Spalding got her start is home to jazz clubs like Solae’s and Jack London Revue, which regularly host local & national musicians. Baxter’s association with The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies holds mixed social capital value: the Grammy-winning band famous for the song “Zoot Suit Riot” and Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of it often finds itself in feminist articles about bands with misogynist names.

On Thursday, Nov. 16, the band’s association earned Baxter pleased gasps of surprise. The reaction seemed reflective of what my Introduction to Script Analysis instructor, Profile Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director, Lauren Hanover, described as the balance in appeasing traditional and contemporary theater audiences. Baxter played well, performing an expressive piece inspired by the stages of grief. I got through Depression by the time I found my seat.

I had never been to Artist Repertory Theatre. The Alder Stage, one of ART’s numerous in-house stages, struck me as shoestring minimalism backed by healthy patronage. The walls looked like exposed plywood, but painted and treated enough to absorb light and be splinter-free. The seats were more comfortable than I have seat in at traditional theaters or music halls, and are amphitheater style, with three front rows on the same plane as much of the production.

Other stages included Alder Stage’s corners, which staged the cyber world where Haikumom/Odessa Ortiz (Julana Torres)’s chatroom takes place, and the central stage made of cinderblocks and pallet floorboards, outfitted with a yellow stuffed recliner, end tables, a standing lamp and Odessa’s 90’s era computer. My seat was in the back, facing the stage directly, on the same level as the cyberworld stages, and closest to Chutes & Ladders (Bobby Bermea).

If you haven’t seen or read Water by the Spoonful, or the other two plays in the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy, you’d have a hard time not reacting emotionally to the play’s content: in 2009, Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz (Anthony Lam) and his cousin Yaz prepare for the death of their aunt, a woman who has been their second mother.

Elliot and his biological mother, Odessa, struggle with substance abuse (crack cocaine for Odessa, painkillers for Elliot) and their strained relationship. As Haikumom, Odessa admins a pre-social media chatroom for recovering crack addicts, frequented by Chutes & Ladders, Orangutan (Akari Anderson) and Fountainhead (Duffy Epstein).

Even if you have seen or read Water by the Spoonful numerous times, you’d have been taken by moments in this production when actors transcended their professional polish: the way Fountainhead hissed “fuck you” at Haikumom in their diner meeting was poisonous; the volume in which Orangutan fights with Chutes & Ladders across the stages gripped your heart and rang my ears; and the way Elliot lost control, screaming in grief, sucked oxygen from the room and bulldozed barriers.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to sit any closer to the stage than I was; I would probably flinch and turn away when Elliot reveals Odessa’s painful maternal failings. Seeing Mami Ginny’s eulogy staged alongside Odessa’s anguish in relapse was another emotionally difficult scene, one that comes off far more poignantly than a table read of beat study alone can conceptualize: Odessa’s work with the chat room does have meaning, even if her family doesn’t understand it, and though she failed grievously as a parent, she still chooses to do good.

Water by the Spoonful is the type of play that people who don’t go to plays complain about what plays needs to be: it’s contemporary, it doesn’t require a traditional stage and it centers near-exclusively on people of color. Family and gender dynamics between Elliot, Yaz and Odessa felt relatable and relevant to me as an audience member.

Lam and Muñoz’s physical mannerisms and tonal inflections are difficult for me as a white person to articulate and almost impossible for me to write, but they felt true to Elliot and Yaz without crossing into Latinx caricature. Bonus: Yaz’s Japanese minimalist phase is a reference to 00’s nostalgia, a blooming fad movement we can truly all get behind. Elliot’s stage fighting with The Ghost (Wasim No’mani) came off more literally than I envisioned it could be, but it wasn’t a weak point.

The multi-level, non-traditional staging for Water by the Spoonful demonstrates a masterful use of space, which challenges what and where theater can be without going avant garde or shoestring. Every space not in use by the audience was utilized, including aisleways, which made one audience member’s exit during Act 1 Scene 1 all the more disruptive, as she had to physically pass Elliot and Yaz’s exchange to leave.

Seeing Profile Theatre’s ART staging helped me both visualize how Water could be staged in a traditional raised theater and long to see more plays that challenge the classic layout. The cyberworld staging, for example, felt like it created an emotional dome from which there was no distraction. The barriers cinema normally affords its audience, in presenting representations of reality vs. breathing-and-sweating, sometimes literally in your face reality, melt in theatre. When actors go ugly, there’s only as much space between them and you as you paid for.

By the end of the play, after the surprise reveal of the Puerto Rican stage (I won’t ruin how they do it, but I will say I was shook, as the kids say), and after the curtain call, Lam, Muñoz and the rest of the cast drop character and remind us that the actually beautiful scene we’ve just witnessed doesn’t exist anymore, because it’s 2017, not 2009, and Puerto Rico is still without electricity and basic human necessities months after being literally devastated by hurricanes.

Coming back to reality, it was weird to visualize how Water by the Spoonful is almost a decade removed from the period in which it’s based, and weirder to see what has and hasn’t changed: Puerto Rico is devastated, AIM is dead and theater has the potential to tell stories cinema can’t because cinema doesn’t ground its audience in reality in the same way theater does.

Profile Theatre’s next production, 2.5 Minute Ride by Lisa Kron and directed by Jane Unger, is staged at Artist Repertory Theatre Jan. 25 – Feb. 11. Visit Profile Theatre’s website for more information.