Capturing the streets of North Philadelphia and putting them onstage alongside the struggles facing many families, individuals and neighborhoods looked as though it was, well, easy for playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes.
This is Hudes’ first play to show at the Arden Theatre Company and is now playing until March 16 under the direction of Lucie Tiberghien on the Arcadia Stage at the Arden, located at 40 N. 2nd St.
The two-hour show – with a 15-minute intermission – would not have been the same without the quick-witted and playful banter from main characters and cousins, Elliot and Yaz Ortiz, played by Temple alum Armando Batista and Maia DeSanti. The cousins are members of a Puerto Rican family torn apart by violence and drugs in North Philly.
Junior theater major Steph Iozzia saw the show during its second performance, after its opening night debut on Jan. 22.
“It came off the page, which I think is really important with plays,” Iozzia said.
The script came to life with Batista’s heavy Philly accent and “Spanglish,” and DeSanti’s playful teasing, making Hudes’ writing reflect the Philly streets and culture even more.
The story follows two groups of people, both Elliot and Yaz, and a chat room full of “crack heads” that intertwine throughout the show and gracefully meet in the middle, right before intermission. Through a series of events which would be unforgivable to give away, Elliot and Yaz are posed with universal questions that transcend into their own individual and family struggles.
As “Water by the Spoonful” is only the second of the trilogy, the ending does not leave the audience with a sense of closure.
“The characters have so much further to go, which makes me really interested in seeing where they do in fact end up,” said Angie Coleman, one of the audience members.
An interesting aspect of the show was the element of jazz music and how essential it was to the themes of the show. Yaz, a music teacher and proponent of dissonant music, introduces themes of disagreement and controversy into the show.
“The way the show played out, you knew it was like a piece of jazz music,” said Philadelphian and thespian Ben Schrager. “You knew all of these notes were going to be hit, but you didn’t know when or how.”
This dynamic of a broken family living in “el barrio” in North Philly casts a literally harsh light of reality onto the set, an intentional choice by light designer Eric Southern.
Southern also manages to capture an era of disconnect in online relationships through LED lights that resemble the offensive buzz of a computer monitor, giving the show another dimension unique unto itself. A gentle haze of yellow light illuminates both broken and growing relationships, and a flooding spotlight gives an eerie layer to a veteran’s psychological instability. Southern’s choices proved to be influential for the entire show, and without them, may have fallen flat.
The set, which was originally wood, is hand-painted to look like the concrete streets of Philly. The basic design lends itself to interpretation, such as how it has multiple levels and steps, similar to the steps of recovery and disconnection. Amid the concrete walls is a mural with an eye peeking through a single square window.
This mural, which can be seen in Kensington, just adds another layer to the aspect of how the show reflects the lives and universal themes of struggle for Philadelphians.
“I feel so proud as a Philadelphian after seeing this show,” Schrager said. “As someone trying to go into the arts, I just feel really proud.”
Emily Rolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.