What Do "Spoonfuls of Dissonance" Look Like

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater
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Quiara Alegría Hudes brings some of the most pressing issues in society together in a fully-rounded picture of an American family, ranging over three plays. In her first, Elliot: a Soldier’s Fugue (now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre), Hudes tackles changing attitudes toward significant wars of the latter part of the 20th century, and in Water by the Spoonful, she moves into the domestic issues of family displacement and drug addiction. Her third play is coming up February 24-25 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Through all her plays, Hudes’ dramaturgical methodologies are determined by the music that informs each piece. For Elliot, a unifying fugue intertwines generational stories that echo and build upon one another. For Spoonful, John Coltrane’s dissonant period determines the structure. And thereon hangs a tale….

Hudes’ question becomes how to convert an auditory assemblage whose delicate balance verges on noise into a linear, visual rendition of that idea. Judging from the Mark Taper Forum’s production, the question may defy an answer. Thus, Elliot (Sean Carvajal) appears, now thrust into civilian life replete with the responsibilities and stresses of an extended family. But his story takes a back seat to that of his relative, the superb Luna Lauren Velez as Odessa (her exact relationship is to be revealed), the moderator of an online chat group of “recovering” addicts.

The group’s on-line personas, illustrated by projections of their respective “handles,” prove to be at the fulcrum of the play, with “Orangutan” Sylvia Kwan as a lively antidote to Bernard K Addison’s “Chutes and Ladders.” The fish-out-of-water to the chat, “Fountainhead”(played by Josh Braaten) though still using, eventually proves to be an invaluable hero to Odessa’s “Haikumom.” Meanwhile, Elliot is haunted by the ghost of an Iraqi (Nick Massauh), while cousin Yaz (Karen Lugo) drags him along to help with navigating family obligations.

Under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, and against Adam Rigg’s scenic design awash with Yi Zhao’s lighting, Spoonful plays out in a never-never land of open area so that one is never quite sure where the characters may be. The space may be occupied by an assemblage of oddly placed chairs, other times a table; each space referenced by one of a series of shallow interiors that lights up like a department store window to describe each location. We know this because sometimes characters depart from them on the way to the forestage. And for some disconcerting reason, even the ghost (Nick Massouh) emanates from one of these settings. Thankfully, Raquel Barreto’s costumes, while eclectic, still provide the only sort of visual cohesion.

The Spoonful production’s scenic dislocation may be meant to unhinge the story from its anecdotal structure as it veers from one set of online voices to another, and then back to a sort of reality, in a tapestry of relationships that gives the impression that everyone in New York may be in on this phone call (or in this case, chat room). Instead, it seems there are two performances to be presented; only one, utilizing the set, has yet to play out. So, too, there are inconsistencies in the casting.  Anyone searching for unity will be discomfited by Carvajal’s distinctly regional accent (Brooklyn?  The Bronx?),  while the rest of his family speaks with standard stage diction. Coltrane’s dissonance may implode toward noise, but the Mark Taper Forum’s presentation of Water by the Spoonful seems to diverge in ever-expanding concentric circles.

Water by the Spoonful continues through March 11th  2018, running Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Saturday matinees at 2:30 pm; and Sundays at 1:00 pm  and 6:30 pm at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets range from $25.00 to $95.00, at the Center Theatre Group box office, by phone  (213) 972.7231 and online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.