Raíces Theatre Company makes me feel at home every time I visit. I am not in their target demographic, and perhaps you aren’t either; I am not Latino or Hispanic. I do not recognize much of the cultural shorthand exchanged between their familial ensemble and enthusiastic audiences throughout their shows, the head-nodding references, the nonverbal acknowledgements, the concealed giggle at something naughty.
But I do understand identity and the impulse to be oneself in a room of others. I come to every Raíces production in all of my Jewishness and queerness, and know that we are at home together. We believe that storytelling is the bridge.
So does Alex, the aspiring comic book artist at the center of “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom,” the theater’s new production. Alex is a young Puertorriqueño living among the diaspora in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His character, El Coquí Espectacular, defends neighbors against petty street crime in the name of his heritage. Alex, desperate to be as bold as his creation – and his late father, a police officer killed in the line of duty – also dons the green costume and blue-and-red vejigante mask and hits the streets in real life, with much less success.
In telling the story of one young man’s desire to connect with his roots, playwright Matt Barbot wisely tells a larger story of urban gentrification, economic justice, health and wellness, art vs. commerce, millennial disenfranchisement and corporate greed. It’s not an after-school special, but it does paint a holistic picture of what’s wrong and what’s right in society, and it does so with big humor and immense heart. It gets right what so many contemporary-set plays get wrong about casual language and colloquialisms.
Director Victoria Pérez once again delivers a play so well-paced, so well-balanced in dramatics and comedy, in poetics and reality, that it feels almost cinematic. She is so good at landing the levels of a scene, the weight of negative space, nonverbal cues and silence. A number of scenes here are simply marvelous, the way they are birthed in the moment and then quickly disappear. The play’s big climax, a scene so large in scope you’d almost prefer to watch it on a big screen, is beautifully handled with ordinary theatrical tools.
There is a similar kind of tightness in the cast, too. If you haven’t attended a Raíces show before, or don’t recognize some of these stars from other major local stages, you’re missing out.
Lissette DeJesús can do it all as Yesica, a photojournalist looking for her big break – an adept comedian and impassioned dramatist with a refreshingly youthful energy who carries herself with elegance and maturity. Comparing her to Jennifer Lopez might sound too obvious (or lazy) but she brings that X-factor that comes naturally to some people. She is the trusty voice of reason in this frenetic show.
Dan Torres, as Alex, is another one. He breathes inspiring life into Alex’s exploration and El Coquí’s faux-confidence. He delivers Brendan Didio’s full-blast fight choreography with onomatopoeia-like punch. Alejandro Gabriel Gómez brings Alex’s older brother Joe into probably fuller view than what’s written; he makes desperation comical and relaxing.
Rolando E. Gómez and Smirna Mercedes do wonderful jobs in supporting roles, and bring a different kind of energy to the stage. They each have a tendency to let lines drop off from time to time, which is simply a technical matter that can be improved – but they also temper the lead trio’s blooming story arcs with sobering reality checks. All together, these five land all their marks like a well-trained team. Lastly, Matthew Wilson is fantastic in a brief but important role, which is about all that I can say about that.
It’s this level of work that earns a small play big returns. The ability to help audiences better connect with themselves and their communities, and to feel that deeply rooted connection to your own gente: your people. Wepa, Raíces.
4 stars (out of four)
"El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom" runs through Dec. 22 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $20 to $25. Visit raicestheatrecompany.com.