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Philip Dorian


"El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom" at Two River Theater

"El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom"
By Matt Barbot, directed by Jose Zayas
Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ
Now through February 4, 2018
Wednesdays at 1pm and 7pm, Thusdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
Tickets $40-$70, (732) 345-1400; www.trtc.org.

Write what you know, the saying goes. In a conversation between playwright Matt Barbot and director José Zayas, each credits his Hispanic heritage with having inspired their collaboration on "El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom." After being
"El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom." Photo Courtesy of Two River Theater.
introduced at Two River Theater's Crossing Borders New Latino Plays festival two years ago, Barbot's play, directed by Zayas, is premiering at Two River through February 4.

The play is about the creation of comic book character El Coquí Espectacular by an aspiring cartoonist of Puerto Rican descent – a Brooklyn Nuyorican, as that ethnicity is known. El Coquí will be the first Latino super hero, and having committed him to comic-book panels, writer/artist Alex (Bradley James Tejeda) ventures out into the dark of night dressed as his alter ego, not exactly in search of burglaries in progress or damsels in distress. "I thought it would help to get inside the character," says Alex.
[The coqui is a singing tree frog native to Puerto Rico, so named for the sound of the male's call. From such humble origins do super heroes emerge…at least this one.]

Alex's awkward (intentionally so) impersonation as the coqui-masked super hero is at the heart of "El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom." The play is essentially a live-action cartoon, with periodic reality checks that illustrate how diversity and acceptance of Latino culture remain as much a fantasy as a caped crusader. The point is well made, by inference and example and with humor. (The playwright is less subtle elsewhere: something is "racist but we’re not supposed to say racist," or "capitalism ruins everything good.")

There's a message, yes, but "El Coquí" is anything but stuffy. Staged in Two River's versatile Marion Huber Theater, the production is as colorful and action-packed as…well, as a super-hero comic. Alex is spotted by Jessica-with-a-Y (and one s) Yesica (Flor De Liz Perez), a free-lance photographer who documents El Coquí's nightly forays. Along the way Alex is confronted in his cartoonist's imagination by dragon-like nemesis El Chupacabra and in his real life by 'hood ruffian Junior, both played to comically adept extremes by Gabriel Diego Hernández.

Grounding Alex into reality (or trying to) are his patient and well-meaning mother (Olivia Negrón) and his brother Joe (Cesar J. Rosado), whose ad agency job involves being the token Hispanic on the Voltage Cola account and who could give Alex a 'straight' job – if only he’d get real. (It’s the art vs. commerce dilemma; the good guys win.) The five-member cast is uniformly excellent. Director Zayas has them relating to one-another and to the material in just the right proportions. The barely hinted-at romance between Alex and Yesica, for example, is sweet; the brothers come across as brothers; and their mom is just like yours – if only. (The husband and father had been an NYPD officer, who died rescuing a woman and child from all-but certain death. In what might be the most poignant line ever, his widow says "Maybe they needed him more than we did.")

Oddly, and despite frequent references to them identifying as Nuyorican, neither brother speaks Spanish, although they grew up in the ethnic 'hood, and had recently returned from visiting abuela en Puerto Rico. The point might be to stress their assimilation, but them needing Spanish language lessons is a stretch.

The superbly coordinated technical aspects are worth the price. Arnulfo Maldonado's set rotates in and out of Alex's bedroom-cum studio to include rooftops and a streetscape that hosts some mano-a-mano encounters, staged by 'UnkleDave's Fight-House [sic. And why not?] Lighting designer Zach Blane and Projections/Animation designer Alex Koch are a tandem to reckon with. Various neon-lit tubes and geometric-shaped LED screens create a live-action comic-book look and feel. Designer Asta Bennie Hostetter's costumes, built under Lesley Sorenson's supervision, are both exaggerated (the 'characters') and accurate (the 'hood). El Chupacabra's full-body regalia is, I say admiringly, a piece of work! So is "El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom," as entertaining as it is important– and vice versa. (And about the Bottle in the title? Yesica doesn't duck in time!)

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