THE BASICS: EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM, a 2018 play by Matt Barbot, directed by Victoria Pérez, starring Dan Torres, Alejandro Gabriel Gómez, Rolando E. Gómez, Lissette DeJesús, Smirna Mercedes, and Matthew Wilson opened on December 6 and runs through December 22, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 6 at the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave 3rd floor (381-9333) www.raicestheatrecompany.com Runtime: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Alex, a comic book artist growing up with his widowed mother in a NYC borough, has developed a superhero named El Coquí inspired by a national symbol of Puerto Rico, an indigenous green and yellow frog found only on the island. Every superhero needs an arch enemy, and that’s El Chupacabra inspired by the Puerto Rican legend of the chupacabra – a blood sucking monster. For Alex, his own personal chupacabra is all in his mind – a soul-sucking mess of doubt. While some say that Alex’s comic book creation might be “too Puerto Rican” for mass or corporate appeal, El Chupacabra appears to Alex mocking him for turning his back on his heritage and being just “Sorta-Rican.” With a traditional spiky vejigante mask that his late father would have worn at Puerto Rican festivals and a pair of his own green pajamas modified to look like a green and yellow coquí, Alex has begun secretly dressing up as his creation: El Coquí Espectacular, defender of “Nuyoricans” in all five boroughs! Meanwhile, Yesica, a young photographer who wants to make a name for herself, has helped the pajama-clad El Coquí go viral on social media.
Now that El Coquí has some mass appeal, Alex’s older brother Joe, a marketing executive, has gotten the Voltage soda company to adopt El Coquí as part of their ad campaign. When Joe complains that the corporate creative team is culturally insensitive and even a little bit racist, he is fired from the project for, ironically, not being Puerto Rican enough to be their advisor. As the corporate world keeps modifying the concept to be less Puerto Rican as well as more of a shill for the soda pop, Alex decides to fight back. He will debut his original El Coquí Espectacular at New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and prove himself to the world.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The last show on the Manny Fried stage, SHE KILLS MONSTERS, was so good that it had to add an extra show to accommodate word-of-mouth generated demand. If you loved MONSTERS which blended reality and fantasy, dealt with schoolyard bullying, and had great fight scenes and strong female roles as it explored young people choosing their identities, you will love EL COQUÍ. You do not have to know any Spanish to “get” this production (it’s in English) nor do you have to know a coqui from a crocodile (although a limited glossary is provided below).
Despite their comparative youth (two are still in college) all five actors are quite experienced, they’ve worked together before on various stages, they like each other so they are very generous with each other and no one “dominates” the show. If you asked me after the show “who was your favorite – either character or actor?” I would honestly answer that “I loved them all; they were each outstanding.” That’s not being diplomatic. That’s a fact. Now, whenever you get that consistency of performance, you look to the director, and here it’s one of Buffalo’s best, Victoria Pérez.
She’s the iron fist in the velvet glove who demands, coaxes, commands, and cajoles. Hell, I don’t really know how she does it, but she consistently gets the best from her actors.
And the blocking on the smaller stage (Tiffany Jaramillo – Scenic Designer) further subdivided into four areas is phenomenal. There’s Alex’s bedroom with drawing table, then a rooftop set, the streets, and a corporate presentation room. The action never seems to spill over from one area into another area. When an actor is in a particular spot on stage that small space seems to grow to accommodate. Oh, and there’s a fifth area, a screen where we see projected various comments about El Coquí from the local Twitterati which are read aloud by the actors. Very funny.
Every character is completely believable. The nuclear family consists of Alex, the artist who becomes El Coqui, played by Dan Torres. His older brother, the corporate marketing executive Joe, is played by Alejandro Gabriel Gómez. And mom is played by Smirna Mercedes. The photographer Yesica (“with a Y”) is Lissette De Jesús. El Chupacabra (and later Junior, former bully now rap artist) is played with amazing athleticism by Rolando E. Gómez (Brendan Didio – Fight Choreographer). Matthew Wilson gets to have fun playing the role of the “corporate” El Coquí. (And sitting in the audience, his buttons popping with pride was the actor Rolando M. Gómez, father of Alejandro and Rolando E. Gómez.) Every Raices production is ultimately about family.
This show gets the rare Five Buffalo Rating, “Truly superb… you’d be a fool to miss it.” And, again, it’s in English, but with a few Spanish words tossed in, some of which are explained below. Go. Enjoy.
THE VENUE: There is plenty of free parking opposite the building on Great Arrow. Look for the door marked 255 (with the canopy closest to Elmwood.) If you’ve never been to the Manny Fried Theatre before, you might find the surroundings a little industrial at first, but once inside the building, take a moment to admire the old Pierce-Arrow Automobile Company advertisements on the walls and while you can walk up the stairs, ask for a ride on the elevator which used to carry luxury cars. It’s part of the experience. When it’s a Raices production, bottled water and snacks are available for $1 each, but seating is extremely limited, so do make a reservation.
PUERTO RICAN DAY PARADE: While the play, written by a NYC based playwright, mentions the New York parade, Buffalo’s next “Puerto Rican & Hispanic Day Parade of WNY” will be on Saturday, August 15th, 2020 with events at LaSalle Park from August 14th through the 16th. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to make masks.
THE MASKS: At Puerto Rican festivals, many people dress up as a vejigante (literally “giant bladder” from the custom of blowing up and then painting cow bladders in the traditional colors of green and yellow) before whacking people in the parade with them. Vijigantes roam through the crowds wearing scary masks. For a very funny YouTube video watch “Puerto Ricans Try Making Vejigante Masks For The First Time” –
– as Ivan who was born on the island and Eli who was born in Chicago razz each other about how Puerto Rican they each are as they make the masks. Are there going to be (are there already?) some mask-making events in Buffalo? I’ll keep checking the Raíces Theatre Company Facebook page to find out.
HOW PUERTO RICAN DO YOU HAVE TO BE? This question which continues to haunt generations not born on the island is explored in this play and elsewhere, including another fun (and moving) YouTube video called “I Connected With My Puerto Rican Side For The First Time”
A PUERTO RICAN SUPERHERO COMIC?: There was a one-shot comic book issued by Marvel which has the Fantastic Four go to Puerto Rico and encounter a vejigante. But, so far the title EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM only applies to this play.
THE BOTTLE OF DOOM: This applies to a super-soaker-like weapon carried by El Coquí’s enemy El Chupacabra but also refers to the high level of diabetes among the Puerto Rican community which would presumably be exacerbated by the drinking of the (fictitious) “Voltage” cola which is being marketed to Puerto Ricans in the play. According to Project Hope even before Hurricane Maria brought widespread disruption to the island’s disrupted healthcare system, Puerto Rico had a diabetes prevalence rate about 50% higher than the general U.S. population.
EL CHUPACABRA: The Chupacabra (literally “goat sucker”) is a popular Puerto Rican legend about a creature with spines down its back (sort of a terrestrial “Creature From the Black Lagoon”) explored by the BBC here.
FLAMBOYAN (mentioned in the Director’s Note): The Flamboyan is an umbrella-like tree whose showy flowers are appealing but for Puerto Ricans symbolizes pride, hope, and rest. The tree can be red, orange or yellow but the red flowers are Puerto Rico’s national flower.
LATINX: In an attempt to get around the grammatical problems of “Latino” (male) versus “Latina” (female) many younger Hispanics have been calling themselves LatinX.
But you don’t have to know any of that.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!