Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Ivan Vega as Power and Dennis García as Water. Photo by Anthony Aicardi.
By Bec Willet
Where does a theatrical experience start? For me it’s usually the moment I step into the theater – at least that’s when my ‘reviewer brain’ kicks in. There are two performances: the one on stage, and the one in the lobby. I strive to be fair by ensuring to critique the show I’ve been asked to address – the one on stage, rather than the one in the lobby but with UrbanTheater Company it’s difficult to separate the two. This is a company so rooted in their Puerto Rican and Humboldt Park community that elements that make up the experience of seeing a production here are inseparable – whether it be the performance on stage, the greeting of patrons in the lobby, or (I suspect) the discussion spilling into the wide community. It’s refreshing and like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
Written by Latinx activist playwright Richard Montoya, WATER & POWER is a magically realist play about the Garcia brothers, Gilbert ‘Water’ and Gabriel ‘Power’ who have risen through the ranks of Chicago politics and law enforcement. After their involvement with a shooting, the men grapple with how to protect each other and their community. While not always technically outstanding, this cast of 5 Latinx men and one white man tell this story with passion and gravitas.
Andrew Neftalí Perez’s Norte/Sur is the chorus of the show, and he serves it well. His grasp of lyrical language and clarity of intention grounds this, at times, unfocused production. Ivan Vega’s definition of character as Power and the easy humor created between the brothers is well-timed, and provides the required levity for the intense subject matter.
As with these performances, authenticity was present throughout Richard Perez’s direction. However, the inconsistency in focus and control of tension made for less than nuanced shifts in the story’s arc. Similarly, the design featured interesting ideas but didn’t always work towards a cohesive vision. While much of the story was set in the real world, often the characters representative of hope were found in the supernatural – a realm which I’d hoped the design elements would have handled more innovatively. WhilePerry Landes’ sound design offered the most consistent indication of the play’s path through the magical and the real, it wasn’t supported with a similar vision in blocking or lighting, which sometimes made their presence feel sudden, despite their suitability in the context of the script.
Montoya’s statement about his own community-focused company in San Francisco, Culture Clash that “On a good night, good theater can still be a town hall,” is fitting here. UrbanTheater’s WATER & POWER might not be technically perfect, but these difficulties are mostly superseded by the importance and grounding that this production and this company have within the Humboldt Park community.