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April 28, 2018 Comments Off on Powerful New Plays Demand Your Attention Part 1: “Oscar Wao” at Book-It Views: 1148 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Powerful New Plays Demand Your Attention Part 1: “Oscar Wao” at Book-It

Good theater seems to come in waves.

Right now, we seem to have a tsunami of great theater going on in Seattle.

Grab your boogie board and come along…

Elvis Nolasco in Book-It Rep's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". Photo by John Ulman.

Elvis Nolasco in Book-It Rep’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. Photo by John Ulman.

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, adapted and directed by Elise Thoron. Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre and Literature To Life/Young Audiences of New York. Scenic Design by Catherine Cornell. Lighting Design by Thorn Michaels. Sound Design by Kyle Thompson. Properties Design by Emily Sershon. Performed by Elvis Nolasco. Onstage April 19 to May 6, 2018 at the Center House Theater/Seattle Center.

The life might have been brief, but Book-It Rep’s fantastically taut adaptation of Junot Díaz’s highly praised and awarded 2007 novel, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO is indeed quite wondrous. The National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning novel has legions of fans, including many who have wondered: “How do you adapt this complex book that has multiple threads, numerous characters and much digression to explain the historical and social backdrop to the story?”

Apparently it takes great care and talent because adapter/director Elise Thoron from the New York based theater group, Literature to Life has miraculously and concisely reduced a complicated 350 page novel down to a very manageable 90 minutes and keeps the heart and soul of “Oscar Wao” intact.  She has wisely whittled down the cast of characters to the essentials and assigns principal story telling duties to one character who then enacts all the other characters in the story, including Oscar himself, an overweight, geeky nerd obsessed with sci-fi, fantasy and comics. All these roles are brilliantly channeled through theater/television/film actor Elvis Nolasco (“American Crime”, “She’s Gotta Have It”) in a bravura performance.

Ms Thoron has done serious cutting to the tale, reducing the roles and side stories involving Oscar’s sister, Lola and his mother Hypatia. Both characters appear here, but the focus is on Oscar and his obsessions with escaping into the world of fantasy, as well as his fear that the fukú curse, an ancient belief that dooms him and his family, will also doom his quest to find love. He’s helped along the way by his college roommate Yunior (an obvious stand in for the author) who tries to “de-nerdify” Oscar and help him find a girlfriend. But, Thoron does manage to work in numerous “foot notes” to set the back story and history of Dominican-Americans and their complicated relationship to their home island of the Dominican Republic that also bring in the fukú curse and other Dominican beliefs. Oscar pays two visits to the island in the course of the story, and both visits form the heart and soul of the book and play.

The strength of this production is obviously rooted in the strength and power of Junot Díaz’s original story and the characters he created, but it’s success as a piece of theater is mostly due to Ms Thoron’s superb adaptation of the material and her equally strong staging of the piece in tandem with Mr. Nolasco’s exceptional performance which is so movement based, that at times “Oscar Wao” feels more like a work of modern dance. It’s more of a question of Ms Thoron choreographing this material with the artistry and athleticism of Mr. Nolasco. 

And, while the physicality of the performance is riveting, Mr. Nolasco is also an superb interpreter of the lives of all the characters he portrays here from the street wise charms of Yunior to the gawky, blocky, hunched presence of the awkward Oscar to the coquettish charms of Ybon, the Dominican prostitute that Oscar tragically falls for. The actor brings them all to life with great vigor through his physicality but also through subtle nuance of gesture and voice. It’s a master class in great acting to watch him.

The simplicity of the work; one actor on a basic set belies the complexity and depth of the work that examines layers and layers of Dominican culture and society through the lens of Díaz’s beautiful story and characters. And, the fact that Literature to Life has transformed this work with such beautiful simplicity and brevity should hopefully be a guide for Book-It Repertory itself which is frequently prone to overly long, very literal adaptations of great (and not so great) books. I encourage Book-It to both follow that example AND to bring other Literature to Life productions to Seattle.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is very highly recommended. It’s a beautiful example of how one type of art can be transformed into a different form. The superb adaptation, direction and acting are masterful and brilliantly executed. 

Read Part 2, our rave review of ArtsWest Playhouse’s production of AN OCTOROON over HERE!

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