Puerto Rican—or is it Sorta Rican or Nuyorican—Superhero magic is afoot at the Manny Fried Playhouse. A play that asks serious questions about identity, about art vs. commerce, decries gentrification, and skewers corporate appropriation of cultural symbols is also a very personal story about young people searching for purpose and coming up against racial profiling and their own fears and inner demons. In addition to all of that, it is a rollicking good time, a veritable feast of witty dialogue, terrific comic timing, exciting, well-choreographed fight scenes, Twitter feeds, goofy costumes—the Superhero Buzzkill, she of the headpiece topped with a golden banana, winning the award in that category—and a heart as big as the great outdoors.
Written by Matt Barbot and having its regional premier at Raices Theatre Company, El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom tells the story of Alex Nunez, a young out-of-work comic book artist who secretly takes on the persona of a superhero he creates to go out into his neighborhood in Brooklyn at night to protect the people of Sunset Park. He wears a frog costume he made and his deceased father’s beloved vejigante mask, which represents a folkloric demon going back many centuries to when the Moors were thrown out of Spain. He runs up against a tough photographer, Yesica, who tries to talk him into partnering with her to bring El Coquí to social media and make them both famous. His brother, Joe, is a marketing maven who works for Voltage Cola and is having an identity crisis of his own. Alex’s nemesis is El Chupacabra, an internal demon who mocks and undermines him, and in real life is Junior, a street thug and rapper who has bullied him since high school. In the mix is Alex’s mother and a corporate creation that appears in Act 2.
Directed by Raices Co-founder and Artistic Director Victoria Perez, every element of the play shines, beginning with the set by Tiffany Jaramillo, that incorporates a rooftop, bedroom, corporate meeting room, garden, and graffiti wall on the small stage without it feeling the least bit crowded. The audience is greeted with frogs (coquí) singing, courtesy of Light/Sound Designer Nicholas Quinn. The aforementioned costumes are by Smirna Mercedes, who also wears that golden banana. Brendan Didio choreographed the splendid fight scenes.
Dan Torres makes his debut with Raices as Alex and is terrific in the part. He delivers a sense of youthful idealism along with a huge dose of self-doubt and self-loathing, projecting a vulnerability that is endearing. He frog-hops and fights with agility and confidence but conveys a sense of helplessness when interacting with the very confident and determined Yesica, played with great confidence and determination by Lissette De Jesus. She is forceful, yet charming, inhabiting her character completely.
Alejandro Gabriel Gomez is older brother Joe. His facial expressions are a play in and of themselves, conveying a plethora of emotions. His gradual frustration with the corporate mindset is writ large on his face and in his dialogue, as he is confronted with his own identity through his dealings with a corporate racism that is frightening in its cluelessness.
Rolando E. Gomez is the dastardly El Chupacabra/Junior. El Chupacabra (literally goat sucker) is a legendary monster who sucks the life from livestock. As Alex’s internal demon, Mr. Gomez is a delight. Wearing a black costume with a row of spines down his back and a mask, he torments Alex, sometimes gruff and mean, sometimes gleeful and sarcastic. He calls Alex a “foolish amphibian,” dons a pair of glasses to read Alex’s pitiful resume to him. Such a nasty fellow! Ditto as Junior. But do they come to a resolution? Hmmm...
Smirna Mercedes is also excellent as Patricia, Alex and Joe’s mother. She has that earth mother quality that allows her to scold without ever being less than loving. She, along with Lissette and Alejandro, play various very funny people who tweet about El Coquí.
And last, in a small but essential part that will not be revealed here, is Matthew Wilson. Just know that he plays the part very well.
There are twists and turns, backstories revealed, and more in this two-hour fantasy/reality mix. The sold-out opening night audience laughed and clapped with delight throughout the performance. Kudos to Raices Theatre Company and everyone involved in El Coquí and the Bottle of Doom.
Kudos to Raices Theatre Company and everyone involved in El Coqui and the Bottle of Doom.
See it at The Manny Fried Playhouse through December 22nd.