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‘The Happiest Song Plays Last’ at Goodman: Counterpoint of old guilt and quest for grace

Submitted by on Apr 30, 2013 – 12:07 am

Review: “The Happiest Song Plays Last” by Quiara Alegria Hudes, at Goodman Theatre through May 12 ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Ex-Marine Elliot bears a terrible burden, and he would like more than anything to unload it, or better bury it.  This is the sorrowful lyric of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ magnificent play “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” and Goodman Theatre’s fierce, funny, loving production is a highlight of the current season.

It’s also the second knock-out presentation in this year’s Latino Theater Festival at the Goodman, following on the heels of Cuban playwright Raquel Carrio’s “Pedro Páramo,” which opened the festival in March.

“The Happiest Song Plays Last” is the final installment in a trilogy that has brought Hudes a Pulitzer Prize for the second part (“Water by the Spoonful”) and recognition as a Pulitzer finalist for the first part (“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”). In its originality, raw ferocity, humanity and eloquence, “The Happiest Song” upholds that lineage.

Elliot, an ex-Marine and veteran of the war in Iraq, is working as an actor and military consultant on a low-budget indie film shoot in Jordan. He has also brought back to the Middle East the unexpunged guilt of killing an Iraqi man during his tour of duty there. Killing may be the business of war, as Elliot is reminded by another soldier, but this was different. This incident has conjured a ghost that Elliot cannot exorcise.

Back home, in North Philadelphia, his cousin Yaz (the bright-humored and warm-hearted Sandra Marquez) has jumped off her career path to become a sort of culinary Mother Teresa to the community’s homeless. Elliot and Yaz are close pals, more like brother and sister, and they stay in touch daily – at all hours – via texting and Skype. They know everything that’s going on with each other, except when they don’t. Yaz believes she has found peace and purpose, though a sobering event will fracture her idyll. Elliot, on the other hand, has deleted the word peace from his book of knowledge.

What Elliot has not lost, and it resonates in every fiber of Armando Riesco’s virile and endearing performance, is his lust for life. The erstwhile Marine ready for any adventure still beams through Elliot’s rather dull and generally annoying new role, as pretend soldier at the beck and call of an impossible-to-please director. Elliot’s earthy sense of humor remains intact as well. When cousin Yaz admits she’s falling for a guy, her cousin in faraway Jordan beams back some very funny personal advice.

That Yaz’s prospective lover, a jibaro singer (the elegantly well-worn Jaime Tirelli), is twice her age doesn’t curb her interest. She’s accustomed to the company of older men, even if they tend to be needy types like simple-minded Lefty (a winning performance by James Harms), who drops by regularly to see “mommy” and mooch a bite to eat.

On his side of the planet, Elliot has acquired two friends, or maybe they’re just associates. He might be hard-pressed to say. Shar, a beautiful California-born actress, one-quarter Egyptian and fluent in Arabic, is playing an Iraqi woman on this shoot. Fawzia Mirza’s petite, bright-eyed Shar gamely complements Riesco’s strapping figure of a soldier.

Elliot’s other friend on location is Arabic, but he’s no more Jordanian than the ex-Marine, and here is where the waves of circumstance begin to roll higher. Ali – played with earnest grace by Demetrios Troy – is a displaced Iraqi, with a family, who’s found employment on the film shoot as adviser, translator, gofer. Ali has tried to assimilate into his new Jordian milieu, to acquire a local accent. But his cultural submersion takes a bad turn.

Events go awry for everyone when Elliot prevails upon Ali to help make contact with the widow of the man he killed in Iraq. And despite his fondness for Elliot, Ali becomes the enforcer of the soldier’s troubled conscience.

Making these spinning lines not only easier to trace, but also more compelling, is the combined effect of designer Collette Pollard’s dual set – on one side of the stage Yaz’s homey kitchen, on the other side the bleak vista of Elliot’s existence – with Jesse Klug’s graphic lighting, Christine Pascual’s evocative costumes and the enveloping sound worlds created by Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath.

Hudes’ deeply personal connection to music – she is a composer, and it was Bach’s art that inspired the concept of “A Soldier’s Fugue” – also shapes and adorns “The Happiest Song.” Here, a pivotal character is a veteran practitioner of jibaro music, a mountain country folk tradition of Puerto Rico typically accompanied on cuatro, a smaller cousin of the guitar. What’s more, the play is lavishly punctuated with fragments of musica jibara sung and played by a ghostly figure who is in fact a master of the art, Nelson Gonzales.

Not so surprisingly, in “The Happiest Song” Hudes’s dramatic scheme has more than a touch of Bach in it. Her play unfolds along interactive parallel lines, punctus contra punctum – nothing so elaborate as a fugue, but rigorously and essentially responsorial all the same. And as with all well-crafted counterpoint, we can follow each of the interwoven lines independently even as we watch their mutually affecting progress toward some grand finality.

In the end, like a maestro on the podium, director Edward Torres keeps the converging lines tautly in hand and allows his players to make of the last song something at once poignant and sweet, arresting and uplifting. In the terrible aftershock of war and truth, perhaps even happy.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: From halfway around the world, Elliot (Armando Riesco) stays in touch electronically.  Descending: Actors on a film shoot, Shar (Fawzia Mirza) and Elliot (Armando Riesco) share some time off together.  Homeless Lefty (James Harms) likes to drop in on Yaz (Sandra Marquez).  Jibaro music master Nelson Gonzales (left) serenades throughout the play in which Jaime Tirelli portrays a traditional singer of Puerto Rican mountain songs.  Off the film set, Ali (Demetrios Troy) and Elliot (Armando Riesco) develop a friendship. Yaz (Sandra Marquez) at home in her kitchen. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.  Below: Agustin (Jaime Tirelli) and Yaz (Sandra Marquez) become lovers.   (Production photos by Liz Lauren) 

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