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CHARLES IVES TAKE ME HOME @ Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

A classical symphony and a basketball game may not have much in common, especially when each event is played by an estranged father and his daughter. Their complex relationship is explored in Charles Ives Take Me Home, now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The three-character play begins with composer Charles Ives (Henry Stram) introducing us to high school basketball coach Laura Starr (Kate Nowlin) and her father, Julliard-trained violinist John Starr (Drew McVety). Divorced dad John has trouble relating to Laura, who has been interested in basketball since she was a young child. The sports gene has skipped a generation, as John’s father was a sports fiend who didn’t appreciate his son’s love for music. Laura never inherited her dad’s musical passion, but she makes attempts to understand it—dribbling in rhythm to his list of musical terminology, reading about John’s idol Charles Ives, even picking up the violin to see how it feels. Unfortunately, John doesn’t always return that understanding, causing a tension in their relationship that builds until Laura announces that she’s been accepted to a Midwestern college on a basketball scholarship.

The characters often directly address the audience: Charles Ives as an eccentric yet gentle narrator, John as a confessional, and Laura as an emotionally-charged pep talk to her team. They also interact with one another in scenes presented in loose chronological order. The resulting combination shows the dissonance between Laura and John. Dissonance is also a distinguishing feature in Ives’ music, even though Ives saw the harmony in his family as well as in his compositions.

All three actors make a terrific ensemble. Kate Nowlin is athletic and disarmingly captivating as Coach Laura and adorable as the wide-eyed younger incarnation of a girl eager to earn her father’s approval. Drew McVety is charming and oh-so-tragic as music obsessed but emotionally distant John, and Henry Stram brings a warm, engaging presence to Charles Ives (and is the first person I’ve ever seen whose eyes actually twinkle).

The set, designed by Andromache Chalfant, is both compact and beautiful: a playing space lightly furnished and covered in wood paneling, with each character having their own playing space—for violin tuning and layups. (The sound of Laura’s Nikes squeaking on the floorboards is a realistic and fun surprise.) Daniella Topol’s direction is clean and showcases playwright Jessica Dickey’s humorous and cohesive dialogue. There is also some fabulous violin and piano playing by Mr. McVety and Mr. Stram respectively: their scene together, with Charles Ives coaching a young John, is a memorable one.

Despite the angst and misunderstandings, Charles Ives deftly illustrates the poignancy of a father-daughter relationship. One of the play’s final lines is, “Will Laura Starr make it?” As the lights dim, I suspect that both she—and her father—will.

Basilica at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Father Gil (Alfredo Narciso) and Lela (Selenis Leyva) unwillingly revisit old memories

The Cherry Lane Theatre always offers exciting new plays and Basilica, written by Mando Rivera, is no exception. There’s plenty to note about this production, particularly its outstanding Latino cast. It’s comforting to see that there are strong roles out there for Latino actors, as well as opportunities for writers to explore a growing Hispanic-American experience.

In fact, at its start, the events surrounding the Garza family sound like those in any typical family drama by <insert famous American playwright here.> High school senior Ray (Jake Cannavale, though played by understudy Oscar Cabrera at our show)  aims for more than his small-town life in San Juan, Texas can afford. He subverts his father’s expectations when he gets accepted and decides to enroll in a liberal arts school in Chicago, escaping a seeming cycle of alcoholism, depression, and low ambition exhibited by his father Joe (expertly played by Felix Solis) and drinking buddy Cesar (a natural Bernardo Cubría).

Things get complicated when a new priest arrives at the basilica (kind of like a super-church) who has a hidden past involving Ray’s mother Lela (Leyva). You don’t really need to be accomplished theater critics like ourselves to figure out what’s going on and its implications.

What does set this family apart from other conventional theater families is their incredible dependence on religion. Each family member has their own unique relationship to Catholicism– whether its Lela’s devotional self-sacrifice and passivity to God’s will, Father Gil’s resentful and guilt-induced holiness, or Joe’s unwilling awe– a strange Trinity of sorts. The Garza children are still experimenting with religion. Ray borders on indifferent while sister Jessica is seen trying her hand at voodoo, Islam, and Buddhism.

Structurally, Act 1 is solid. It exposes conflicts and character dynamics in a way that sympathizes with but also distances us from their actions. The writing is funny, light, but also tightly structured. In the second act, however, things begin to unravel with a TOTALLY unexpected plot twist that feels terribly unnecessary. In fact, I feel like I speak for the audience when I say that we actually felt much more interested in the plot’s resolution had said plot twist been absent. Also, sister Jessica’s weird fascination with a missing imaginary friend and experimental religious practices is never fully explained or resolved and leaves a bit of a hole in our understanding of the play’s relationship to religion.

Basilica really excels in its technical aspects. Set Design adds quite some layer to the family dynamics. A bar, the basilica, and the Garza foyer functionally meld into one set. At their crossing, a gaping cross looms over the stage which, when lit, is quite imposing. Sound design also proves essential to setting the tone for this family tragi-comedy. I’d probably grab a track or two if ’twere downloadable.

All of the adult actors give vivid performances. While I want to single out Felix Solis and Selenis Leyva for their genuine, dynamic performances, I’d feel remiss in not mentioning Bernardo Cubría and Rosal Colón for their supporting roles as goofy Cesar and embittered Lou. Oscar Cabrera also gave a star turn in his performance. Norma and I caught glimpses of Oscar’s rehearsals before the performance (his first in the role), which made us all the more excited to see him perform.

Basilica plays through June 22nd.

4 Reasons Why Water by the Spoonful is Awesome

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Last night Water by the Spoonful had its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theatre.  Here are some reasons why it’s awesome:

1. It is the first Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a Latina playwright.

And boy does Quiara Alegría Hudes represent. Water by the Spoonful follows ex-Marine Elliot and his return home to Philadelphia. While Elliot’s postwar demons are not new, the perspective of a Latino veteran is. The same could be said for Elliot’s cousin Yaz, who is reevaluating her life after her divorce. Her relationship with her husband was strained in part because it was an interracial one. Odessa, Elliot’s biological mother, has a particularly poignant arc. While her addiction to cocaine would usually be the end of the story, in Spoonful it’s only the beginning as  Odessa uses her experiences to moderate a forum about substance abuse. Add in a group of  diverse well-rounded supporting characters and you have Water by the Spoonful.

2. Internet conversations can still be dramatic ones.

At first, I couldn’t believe that entire scenes were taking place in Odessa’s internet chat room. But this production of Spoonful deftly handled these scenes, in part by displaying the avatars and usernames of the characters on stage. And with so much of our communication now taking place online, it was a bold and timely move to include the online interactions of the characters.

3. Location, location, location.

I mentioned this in my Stephen Adly Guirgis post, but I love plays that take us somewhere beyond the living room. Spoonful travels to a Subway in Philly, a train station in Japan, a rainforest in Puerto Rico, and more. Seeing all of these places on stage was not only exciting but also allowed characters to go on new and unexpected journeys. I especially liked Madeleine’s quest to find herself in Japan, and Elliot and Yaz’s spreading their aunt’s ashes in El Yunque.

4. So. Much. Heart.

A lot of today’s theatre has to do with aloof-ness and disassociation, whether it be through emotion-less line readings or snarky witticisms. But Water by the Spoonful‘s characters aren’t afraid to care. Yaz is passionate about teaching Coltrane to her students and take care of Elliot, Odessa wants the best for all of her forum members, and Madeleine wants to connect to Clayton in a tangible way. Hudes’ honest writing and the ensemble’s sincere performances create a memorable, heartfelt night of theatre.

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