If you long for more Latin-themed theater and especially all things Puertorriqueño, then you will absolutely be thrilled by “The Happiest Song Plays Last”, the latest and last play in the “Elliot Trilogy” by Pulitzer Prize-Winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, now playing at the Goodman.
From beginning to end this work is saturated with key touchstones of Puertorriqueño culture. Food, as in most cultures, figures large, with some lines sounding like a run-down of the menu at Chicago's Cafe Central. We hear Jibaro music, the music of Puerto Rico’s historic peasant class, throughout. Sometimes joyful and sometimes sad, these songs are primarily performed by Grammy Award nominee Nelson González.
The instrument of the romantic lead played by Jaime Tirelli, is a cuarto (a stringed guitar-like instrument) is a key dramatic object in the story. The script even takes liberties to change the date of the Three Kings Celebration to ensure that this too works its way into the setting.
There is in fact a great deal of script-time devoted to cultural set up—both in the Philadelphia neighborhood where a woman community organizer lives and where most of the action takes place, as well as on the other side of the world where her cousin, an Iraqi war veteran, is making his foray into the film business. Some may find this set-up of culture and place to get in the way of the action and perhaps the actors too. In the end, however, the script delivers a memorable image and dramatic climax that speaks to what it means to any human who lets another’s humanity be forgotten in the fog of war.
Both cousins are in their own way contending with the loss of respect for human life and the ensuing tragedy for all in the path of such loss. As a former community organizer who like Yaz (played by Sandra Marquez) in Philadelphia has railed at the injustice of a patient being left to die by an inhuman medical system geared to underserve or ignore the poor, I KNOW that her soliloquy was a perfect pitch capture of the rage at injustice such a character would feel.
James Harms playing Lefty delivers a stellar performance standing in for the entire disparate community that a grass-roots organization in reality cobbles together—a size cast that no Chicago theater could afford to stage.
In the Middle East we meet cousin Elliot (plated by Armando Riesco), a war veteran so solidly grounded in his cultural identity that he tells us its in his DNA. That puts him on a mission to help his attractive female film colleague (Shar, played by Fawzia Mirza) who is a mescla of so many cultures that she claims she has none.
In the Middle East we also meet Ali (played by Demetrios Troy), an Iraqi refugee who shows us the generosity of spirit that persists despite war and atrocity. We follow his words as a guidepost on how to find humanity when it appears to be totally lost.
One brilliant scenic touch worth noting was the inspired projections of video calls between the cousins. While the community organizer’s worried face is seen in great detail, her soul-wounded cousin appears as an apparition as if foretelling the plot twists to come.
For those who do not feel a hole in the Chicago theater scene this play reminds that perhaps you should. Sit tight through the more verbose meanderings of the script and do not leave during the intermission. No spoiler alert is needed to tell you that this plot ties up dramatically and memorably. What plays last is not the happiest song, but the saddest—a true testament to the range of Jíbaro music.
"The Happiest Song Plays Last"
April 13 - May 12, 2013
For tickets call 312.443.3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org
Photo credits: Liz Lauren