The final part of Hudes’ trilogy, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” opening at The Goodman Theatre was an enthralling production with Latin flare.
Still, as a standalone play, I couldn’t help but wonder what I missed in not seeing the first two shows. Yet, I was still able to connect with the characters and story in front of me.
The play opened with protesters surrounding the audience. Spanish singing and shouting echoed in the room and set the scene for what should be a show about protesting against the treatment of Latin-Americans. Though this protest is short lived and doesn’t come back in the play, it had “Si se pueden” imprinted in my brain.
The play followed the themes of different protests, a haunting past and unexpected love. It told the two stories of cousins Yaz (Sandra Marquez) and Elliot (Armando Riesco), Puerto Ricans from Philadelphia. Elliot is an ex-marine and is the consultant with a war documentary being shot in Jordan. Yaz, still living in Philadelphia, is a kind woman with a full kitchen. She cooked all sorts of meals for homeless friends and neighborhood gatherings. The play bounced from Jordan to Philadelphia. But often brought the two together over a Skype call or IM texting, both projected on the stage. The use of technology added a unifying aspect to the production; you could look at either the cousins faces on stage or on the screens as if it were truly a Skype call.
An important relationship in this production WAS the one between Yaz and her old music teacher, Agustin (Jaime Tirelli). We meet him after Yaz bailed him out of jail, clearly something she has done regularly, when his drinking gets him into trouble. The two appeared to have a close friendship despite the age difference of 30 plus years.
Elliot, working in Jordan, began a friendship with his co-star Shar (Fawzia Mirza), a Middle Eastern woman not so interested in discovering more about her culture. I often found myself set back by Mirza’s performance feeling it should be more subtle and not as over-acted. Her character underwent many mood changes quite quickly in scenes and it seemed too extreme.
Both story lines had a third character, each of whom acted as the glue that holds everything together for those two characters. Ali (Demetrios Troy) was a consultant turned production assistant on the movie, show showed Shar and Elliot around Jordan. He developed a strong bond with Elliot over a shared past. Back in Philadelphia, Lefty (James Harms) is a homeless man that shows great affection for Yaz who feeds and takes care of him. Harms did an excellent job never going overboard on playing a crazy homeless man.
Every play has its glue and for “The Happiest Song Plays Last” it’s the music. Throughout the show, musician (Nelson Gonzalez) wandered through the set, sung in Spanish and played the cuatro, a guitar native to Cuba.
Music is universal even if the language is not and for those who did not understand the words the music still tied the two stories together. I was excited by the integration of the Cuban culture into the play and the Spanish language and i would have liked to see more of it.
When the stage went black, I felt sad to see it end, for I most definitely felt a connection to this production. “Buen trabajo!”