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El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom
By Gary Wien
originally published: 12/26/2017
Playwright Matt Barbot knows what it’s like to read comic books and yearn for a super hero that looks like the reflection he sees in the mirror. In El Coquí Espectácular and the Bottle of Doom, he deftly uses the super hero genre to explore questions of individual and national identity - including what it means to be “Latino” or “not Latino enough” — in contemporary America. The play will have its World Premiere at Two River Theaterfrom January 6 through February 4.
El Coquí tells the story of Alex, an unemployed young comic book artist still wrestling with the death of his father, a policeman, in the line of duty. Adrift in his career and his life, he decides to see what it’s like to be a superhero, and begins to dress up as his creation El Coquí Espectacular (a Puerto Rican superhero who gets his power from a vejigante carnival mask and his name from a tree frog) and fight crime in his neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, his responsible older brother Joe is encouraging Alex to join him at his advertising agency, where Joe works selling sugary soda to Latino consumers. When Joe is fired from a project, the two, with the help of a young photographer named Yesica, hatch a plan: to debut El Coquí at the Puerto Rican Day Parade and prove themselves to the world.
“It’s a play about identity and nerd culture,” explained Barbot. “Alex is dealing with his sense of disconnect from his heritage by creating a superhero that is everything he thinks it means to be Puerto Rican.”
The story is based somewhat on Barbot’s own experiences as a Puerto Rican playwright who has faced questions of his own identity and heritage, has worked in marketing, and is a comic book fan.
El Coquí provides an opportunity to show a superhero that is not the standard white superhero generations have grown up with. Barbot admits he has encountered people who have questioned why characters of his weren’t white; experiences in which people have wondered if something culturally specific will alienate audiences or even if characters didn’t match up to general stereotypes.
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“I’ve never been a fan of the idea that whiteness is universal,” said Barbot. “I’ve often been taught in a lot of contexts that specificity breeds universality. That is to say if I can speak about my experience and about what’s important to me than audiences will identify with it more because it is coming from a real human place. The best example of this in pop culture is My Big Fat Greek Wedding. People identified with them not because they were Greek, but because of the feeling of family they got from it. I have encountered the idea that whiteness is universal and audiences won’t connect with characters unless they look like them. And I don’t think that’s true. It’s certainly not true of minority audiences who are accustomed of seeing characters who don’t look like them.”
Two River Theater deserves credit for believing in the works by minority playwrights. In addition to the theater’s Crossing Borders festival (which presented a staged reading of El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom in 2016), the theatre has also been one of the few in New Jersey to present works from August Wilson’s brilliant 10 part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle. With this new work by Barbot, they are not simply taking a chance on a Puerto Rican superhero, but doing so in a period in which superheroes are still rarely seen on stage.
“It kind of floored me to see my play on the season schedule next to A Raisin in the Sun and The Importance of Being Earnest,” added Barbot. “When I was writing the play, I thought of heroism and what stories are worth telling. I think it is important to have stories about heroism, positivity, and light because so often stories which dominate the news about places like Puerto Rico are defined by tragedy, sadness, and overwhelming circumstances that I think shape public perception in a certain way. It’s important to counteract those stories with real humanity.”
Barbot realizes that many audiences members may know very little about Puerto Rico other than the images seen on their televisions following the destruction of Hurricane Maria in September. He hopes that people will come into the theatre with a greater awareness of the island and its people, and will have a renewed understanding about the need to help them.
The cast includes Gabriel Diego Hernández (El Chupacabra/Junior), Olivia Negrón (Patricia), Flor De Liz Perez (Yesica), Cesar J. Rosado (Joe), and Bradley Tejeda (Alex). The production is directed by José Zayas.
El Coquí Espectácular and the Bottle of Doom was a finalist in the 2014 Repertorio Español Nuestras Voces competition, and won the Kennedy Center’s Darrel Ayers Award for Outstanding Student-Written Play for Young Audiences, as well as the Kennedy Center’s Latinidad Award for Outstanding Play Written by a Student of Latino/Hispanic Heritage. It was also a finalist in Repertorio Español’s 2013 Nuestras Voces competition.
“Matt Barbot is a playwright with a unique and exciting voice,” says Two River Theater Artistic Director John Dias. “Super-smart, super-cheeky and super-honest, his El Coquí examines what it means to be Latino in America in a deeply personal and very funny way. What is a wannabe hero to do when he’s considered a ‘sorta-Rican:’ raised in America by immigrant parents, feeling disconnected from the Latino community (and barely speaking Spanish), but still seen as Latino by the majority of the country. It’s a play for all of us who long to connect to our roots, embrace our culture and let our inner superheroes soar.”
El Coquí Espectácular and the Bottle of Doom is on stage at Two River Theaterfrom January 6 through February 4. Two River Theateris located at 21 Bridge Avenue in Red Bank, New Jersey.
Circle Players Presents "After The Revolution" (PISCATAWAY, NJ) -- Circle Players presents After the Revolution by Amy Herzog, weekends from February 1st to February 17th. The production is directed by Alicia Harabin. In the play, Emma Joseph is a bright, hard-working, law school graduate continuing her family’s business of fighting for progressive ideals. Black Box PAC Presents "Significant Other" (TEANECK, NJ) -- Black Box PAC's first main stage show of 2019 is Significant Other by Joshua Harmon. BBPAC is no stranger to Harmon’s work, as one of the first hits at the Black Box Performing Arts Center was Harmon’s hit Bad Jews. Significant Other follows the perpetually single Jordan Berman and his trio of girl friends as they navigate dating, relationships, and supporting those you love. Performances run from January 24 to February 10th.The Theater Project Presents 5th Annual One-Act Play Competition (MAPLEWOOD, NJ) -- Which play will be voted Audience Favorite – the romance, the thriller, or the comedy? And which author will take the $500 Judge’s Award?Dreamcatcher Presents World Premiere of "Psychodrama" (SUMMIT, NJ) -- Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre will present the World Premiere of Psychodrama by Montclair playwright Phoebe Farber. This seriocomedy unfolds in a divorce support group where a new leader introduces unorthodox methods that just might work. Psychodrama runs February 14-March 3.Centenary Stage Presents Henrik Ibsen's "Enemy Of The People" (HACKETTSTOWN, NJ) -- Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso headline Centenary Stage Company’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, February 15 through March 3 in the Sitnik Theatre of the Lackland Performing Arts Center, Hackettstown, New Jersey. Adapted by John Alan Wyatt and directed by Anne Occhiogrosso, the production will feature Randall Duk Kim as Doctor Thomas Stockmann supported by an acting company of professional and local talent from the tri-state area and Centenary University. The full-scale production marks the culmination of the 2018 Gates Ferry Lecture Series: “What is Truth?”
Emmy-Winning South Oranger, Andre Braugher “I’m Andre Braugher and I’m here at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, SOPAC, rehearsing a new play by Julia Doolittle called ‘Tell Them I’m Still Young.’”Laiona Michelle Talks About "Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical" This might be the right time for Nina Simone—15 years after her death. That’s what Laiona Michelle thinks, and, in a way, Michelle will be testing that idea by bringing the singer-activist to life in a world-premiere musical show at George Street Playhouse.
Michelle wrote the show—“Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical”—and she will appear in the title role at the New Brunswick theater from January 29 through February 24.It's "Apple Season" at NJ Rep Every family has stories. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Some are sad. And some are never shared.
Those are often the most powerful.Rise of the Goatman Theater For The New City presents Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of the Goatman, an original play by Englewood resident Matt Okin (Artistic Director of Black Box Studios), from December 27 through January 13. In this pseudo-Southern Gothic dark comedy, a vibrant group of teens from two very different suburban neighborhoods clash over class differences, drugs, and sex - and the existence of the legendary ‘Goatman’ in 1986. Cut to 2013, and the adolescent kids of those very same teens are struggling to make sense of their family histories - and the same “mythological” creature - that could be holding them back in life.PHOTOS from "The Winter's Tale" at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (MADISON, NJ) -- The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s concludes its 56th season with its sixth and final Main Stage production, The Winter's Tale. Last seen at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2008, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte directs this production of Shakespeare’s tragicomedic romance. Veteran company members Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Erin Partin, John Keabler, Raphael Nash Thompson,Seamus Mulcahy, Patrick Toon, and Ames Adamson are among a cast of 20 actors. Performances run now through December 30.
Event calendar Tuesday, Jan 22, 2019
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