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While lecturing to her students about John Coltrane’s seminal 1965 album A Love Supreme, Yazmin Ortiz, a 29-year-old Puerta Rican adjunct professor of music, says, “Dissonance is still a gateway to resolution. … The ugliness bore not promise of a happy ending. The ugliness became an end to itself. … It was called ‘free jazz,’ but freedom is a hard thing to express musically without spinning into noise.”

These lines prove to be an excellent metaphor for the broken souls from different backgrounds searching for connection and meaning in an online chat room for addiction recovery, but they also characterize the sometimes-hectic nature of Circle Theatre’s ambitious production of Water by the Spoonful, in which the dissonance proves to be a little too much.

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that premiered in New York City in 2011 follows Elliot Ortiz (Eric Garcia) as he copes with the trauma he experienced as a U.S. solider in Iraq. The play works in two separate lines that eventually merge. One thread follows Elliot and cousin Yazmin (Tamika Sanders) as they help each other process loss and familial issues, while the other thread tracks Elliot’s mother, Odessa Ortiz (Caroline Rivera), as she runs the chat room for addicts. The two seemingly different threads, much like free jazz, wind along their own paths and then converge as this look at grief, family trauma, and belonging crescendos and resolves.

Tamika Sanders helps her character’s cousin find some sort of peace in Water by the Spoonful.
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Circle Theatre’s choice to produce this play is a bold one. The theatre, a quaint, welcoming space in Sundance Square, houses its productions black box-style below street level, and while an excellent venue, it is also small. The size of the stage matters in a production like this, which encapsulates so many characters in several different locations. This is accomplished by populating the perimeter of the stage with the chat room actors and their respective locales. Circle’s Kevin Brown has designed a novel way to allow each character to exist alone and still be part of an online community. Each actor is situated on a riser populated by a desk or couch or some other element that characterizes them. At the bottom of the risers, their chat names appear in large lettering: Haikumom, Orangutan, Chutes&Ladders, and Fountainhead. A design element that works well is that each riser lights up when the character logs in with an accompanying computer chime signaling to the others in the chat room that a new person has arrived. At no point is there confusion about how this complicated chat room device works.

The focal point of the play does not work as well. It’s never clear exactly whose story this is. You could say it’s Elliot’s, because his family drives most of the narrative, but the ensemble is central to the thematic turns. Unfortunately, the thread of this story that follows Elliot and Yazmin does not afford them the same defining setting as their chat room counterparts, and the cousins’ space is severely limited. This makes their story harder to follow and leaves Garcia and Sanders with nothing to work off besides their own character choices. For these two characters, the unfolding story happens in various locations. From Philadelphia to Puerto Rico, the audience is left to imagine the setting as the two actors are stuck in the vacuum created by the well-defined chat room perimeter.

All of the chat room members give strong performances. Odessa/Haikumom balances the troubling dichotomy of her personality well. She is a mother figure and counselor to those in the chat room and an absentee mother to Elliot, and this tension works as a web that ties each part of the story together. Orangutan (Thi Le), a late twentysomething living abroad and trying to get in touch with her Japanese roots, is bright as she works to find belonging both in a foreign country and in the chat room. Chutes&Ladders (J.R. Bradford) turns out one of the strongest performances as the “say it as it is” IRS agent. He electrifies the chat room discussion, as he calls out each member and derides the newcomer not willing to be honest with himself. This new guy, Fountainhead (Paul T. Taylor), is a stand-in for the audience as he navigates the chat room’s various personalities. His strong performance portraying his current cycle of addiction and pain fuels much of the banter.

Like a complicated jazz piece, there isn’t always a recognizable harmony in Hudes’ script. The show is rather long and complicated as it takes a while for the dissonance to resolve, but once it does, it makes for a satisfying resolution.

 

Water by the Spoonful
Thru Apr 13 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $37-40. 817-877-3040.

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