I'm not much of a comic book-reader. Whew, there, I said it.
I am, however, a big theater fan, so I figured that a play that is partly a meta comic book could be buoyed by the "play" part, for me.
Turns out, though, that El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom needs no apology for its graphic novel spin. The play by Matt Barbot, which debuted in Red Bank, New Jersey, just last year, follows a comic book artist of Puerto Rican descent as he struggles to either acclimate to a more homogenous New York City, or proudly express his Boricua identity in the face of corporate forces that seek only to monetize it.
The mom's-house-dwelling Alex Nunez, played by a charming but dorky but still charming Miles Blitch, has just quit his job at a comic book giant because he was tired of drawing white men and white women saving white children, or ethnic superheroes with ethic superpowers (a Native hero is powered by a tomahawk, an African one by tribal magic, stuff like that). We're shown, without being preached at, that as subversive as mainstream comics may be, they are still largely repressive to women and people of color.
So Alex has secretly created El Coquí, a Puerto Rican superhero named after a tree frog. But he struggles both with committing one of the sins he himself hates (El Coquí gets his power from an ancient mask from the island), and wondering whether he has the cred to even draw such a character. After all, his nemesis, a local wannabe rapper named El Junior (Ricky Mars), reminds him that he is just Sorta-Rican.
To pass the time and gain inspiration, Alex puts on a goofy home-fashioned costume and hops about the streets at night, attempting to help folks in distress and stay out of sight. He's spotted by Yesica (Cristina Vigil), an amateur photographer who uses her pictures of El Coquí to make her blog a viral hit. Meanwhile, Alex's corporate-shill brother Joe (Jake McCook) is trying to tell him to get his life together and get a real job, and his mother Patricia (Juliet Salazar) chimes in with many of the same ideas, while also adding backstory of the Nunez' father, a cop killed in the line of duty—doing exactly what Alex is now doing in his sweat pants on rooftops.
It's a relatively simple plot that tackles some huge issues, and Barbot is an immensely capable playwright by keeping it light and fluffy even when processing prejudice (and using the word "racist" prominently, I might add—no pussyfooting around here).
Even as the plot thickens and events get stranger and wilder, we're swept along—which eventually turns into a comic book depicted right onstage, with actors hopping about in choreographed moves to show frames on a page. It's hard to explain in words; better just see it. Kudos to director Roxanne Tapia, a Paraguas regular, for many imaginative leaps (no pun intended) and the bravery to take on a play that shines light on the elephant in the room without beating us over the head with its ideologies.
In tune with the script’s subtleties, the actors gracefully take the show’s themes and show them to us, rather than tell us about them. It’s a lesson from Writing 101, and it’s done well here. When Alex finds that he can break up a brewing fight simply by showing up in his goofy mask and getting the crowds to concentrate on him rather than their beef, I scribbled in my notebook: “Being who you are can shake people out of their zombie anger.” Indeed, authenticity is the name of the game here, and capable actors hold big topics and small gestures in tandem.
While Bernadette Pena's costumes were some of the best I've seen at Paraguas, Skip Rapoport's lighting was carefully considered (from a sunrise to a new idea, it all came across from the booth) and the set an engaging jungle gym of buildings and boxes, one of my favorite things about El Coquí was something more intangible: The actors' voices. My very first note, in fact, was "Alex's voice," and it just went from there. Each actor—and, thus, each character—has a very distinctive way of speaking. Some of it was affected, like Salazar's naturally smooth tones pitted with fantastic inflection, or Mars' screeching laughs when he donned a green suit to become the enemy El Chupacabra. But largely, these five actors were naturally an absolute pleasure to listen to. They were loud, they were expressive, and they communicated far more than just words with their speech.
Worth mentioning are the three relative newcomers in this cast: Mars, freshly arrived in Santa Fe and freshly back onstage after a break, is a hilarious nemesis as El Chupacabra. Full of sass and wit, he also dances to himself even when the lights are out and the run crew is scurrying about with set pieces. You could tell he was just having a ton of fun. Also new to town is McCook, who portrays Alex's brother Joe. McCook seemed a little less sure of his place as Joe, saying many of the words rather than delivering them as if he's really settled down into the character, but he has many (if not most) of the show's most pivotal lines regarding race and identity; he'd be well served to trust his own talent and inhabit Joe fully. Also relatively new to town is Blitch, who's only shown us his Shakespeare up to this point, and who I am psyched to see more of (in even more Shakespeare this summer, as it were).
For a show with tons of laughs and lots of color, El Coquí is essentially a really inspiring piece about authenticity, family and dreams. It's also great for kids, if your kids can hear the word "fuck" a few times without freaking.
Things are hard in the world. That is no secret. But Alex, when talking about El Coqui's origin story—and really, every superhero's origin story—urges us to remember: "When things are dire, you look up. You always look up."