‘The Happiest Song Plays Last,’ brings a somewhat unsatisfying end to the story of Eliot Ortiz
Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened The Happiest Song Plays Last, on July 7. The play is the third in a trilogy from playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, about a soldier’s search for meaning after returning from war in Iraq. Though it is the third in the series, it can be seen and appreciated independently, though knowledge of the opening chapters adds to the story.
In Eliot, A Solider’s Fugue, the title character Eliot Ortiz returns from Iraq and must reconcile his time there with his father’s tour in Vietnam and his grandfather’s in Korea. In the sequel, Water by the Spoonful, (the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for playwrighting), Eliot and his cousin Yamin struggle with addiction, the failing health of a parent and the life Eliot took in the war.
The Happiest Song Plays Last, brings those plot threads to a close.
Set at the dawn the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, the action takes place worlds apart, as the protagonists witness very different versions of ethnic struggle and civil unrest.
In America, Yazmine, struggles with poverty in the Puerto Rican barrios of their hometown of Philadelphia. She organizes marches, cooks for the community and gives all she has to give, even when it comes at the her expense, most notably, a blockade to her burgeoning relationship with Agustín, a radical folk musician past his prime.
Meanwhile, Elliot (Daniel Duque-Estrada) has returned to the middle east and battles his post-Desert Storm demons as a military advisor and actor on a war film being shot in Jordan. And when the protests swell in Egypt, the only thing he wants more than to take part, is to bring along his co-star, the Egyptian-blooded but ethnically adverse Shar (Tala Ashe).
The dialog is fantastic, with Elliot and Yazmine bantering via Skype about the size of her underwear and Agustín bouncing back and forth between spinning and singing tall tales in a lovely baritone.
The strong dialog is good, because frustratingly the story elements of the plot are a bit thin. Characters battle baggage and face adversity. But both are depicted more as the system on whole rather than any specific elements within it. And while the system is certainly rotten throughout, especially for the poor and broken, it makes for somewhat abstract storytelling; more a collage of impactful moments than a chain of events that can’t be unbound from one another, a failing that New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood credited to Hudes wrapping too many issues into the script and spreading things thin. This critic tends to agree.
What holds OSF’s production of The Happiest Song Plays Last together are the performances. Bruce Young is fantastic in the role of Yazmine’s homeless laborer friend, Lefty His struggled speech intonations and body language brought a vulnerability, but also managed the delicate task of making the audience laugh by reveling at the his quirks instead of the much easier route of getting laughs by at the expense of the bizarre proclivities of the mentally ill. Armando Duran is also fantastic as Agustin, and sings the corridos smoothly enough to possibly start a side career.
But the strongest performance came from Barzin Akhavan, as Ali, the guide to Arab culture on the movie set that befriends Eliot and Shar with the mission of showing them the real Jordan. His every word and look beam and sparkle with the optimism and hope of a detailed mask crafted to hide his experiences in the war. He is magnetic on stage, even amongst the rest of the talented cast.
The production is lovely, rolling along with live onstage Puerto Rican music from Duran and Joe Cruz, and comedically Jengalike towers of dishes on the set. But for all its strengths, at play’s close, it felt unresolved, as if it simply stopped rather than ended, a finale made more lacking as it closes the trilogy as well as the chapter. And as the curtain fell, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was The Happiest Song Plays Last really about? I could list things it addresses, topics it covers and events and emotions depicted, but not what it is truly about. And it’s a shame that is the emotion I left with, because there is so much else to like about the show.
The Happiest Song Plays Last will play at OSF through November 1.