Playwright Matt Barbot has drawn on his own Puerto Rican and American heritages to come up with El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom, the new superhero play currently running at Two River Theatre in Red Bank. It’s a visually dazzling show exploring questions of cultural identity and authenticity, set in modern-day Brooklyn, and its ninety minutes fly by at super-speed.
Cartoonist Alex, facing a spell of creative blockage, has taken to roaming the nighttime roofscapes of Sunset Park dressed as his latest creation, the mystically-powered El Coqui Espectacular. Rumors of a Latino superhero have inspired Yesica, an aspiring photographer, to uncover the real story. They form an uneasy partnership, and soon El Coqui becomes a viral symbol of heroism in the community. Alex faces pressure from his widowed mother, with whom he still lives, and his older brother Joe, who wants Alex to take a graphic artist job on an ad campaign for a potentially health-threatening soda aimed at the Latinx market. As for El Coqui, he is battling his own nemesis: the monstrous El Chupacabra, planning a sinister takeover of the minds of soda drinkers everywhere!
In director José Zayas’ skilled hands, El Coqui Espectacular skillfully blends the worlds of reality (Joe’s ad campaign, Yessica’s pr work with Alex) and fantasy (El Coqui’s battles with El Chupacabra). In this, he is well-served by his cast. Gabriel Diego Hernández exudes sinister power as the lizard-like El Chupacabra and grabs your attention every minute he’s on stage. He is a truly worthy arch-nemesis, born to define and defy the hero, forcing his foe to exert his powers to the utmost. Both Flor de Liz Perez as Yesica and Olivia Negrón as mother Patricia are women of independent spirit, drawing inner power from their strong sense of self. Finally, there are the brothers, practical Joe (Cesar J. Rosado), finding himself in a position at work he never planned to fill, and artistic Alex (Bradley James Tejeda), uncertain of his place in the community and longing to make a difference in the world of Sunset Park through his creations.
Director Zayas also gets strong assistance from his technical crew. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is centered on a revolving cube whose interior is Alex’ comic-image-packed bedroom while its exterior defines the rooftops and alleyways of Sunset Park. Flanking the cube are a multitude of projection screens displaying the work of designer Alex Koch, which includes animated sequences of El Coqui’s adventures and a hilarious visual take on Twitter comments. The costumes of Ásta Bennie Hostetter run the gamut from contemporary outfits to the homemade look of El Coqui’s uniform and the garish lizard-in-pinstripes design of El Chupacabra, while the sound and lighting designs of Jane Show and Zach Blane respectively sharply define the divide between the worlds of reality and comic books.
Two River Theatre has come up with an entertaining action story that makes solid points about the importance of finding and forging one’s own authentic self. El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom will appeal to theatregoers on many levels, and is a good show to introduce younger audiences to live theatre. I encourage everyone, from comic book aficionados to audiences of all ages and any ethnicity, to enjoy the adventure that is El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom!
El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom is presented by Two River Theatre in Red Bank through February 4, 2018. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheatre.org.