Oscar, a fat freshman in thick bifocals meeting his college roommate for the first time, greets him with what sounds like an insult: “Hail, dog of God!”
His new roommate, the street-smart Yunior, responds in kind: “Your mother what?”
But then Oscar explains: “God: Domini. Dog: Canis. Hail, dominicanis!”
Both teenagers are dominicanis – immigrants from the Dominican Republican – newly enrolled in the Rutgers University Class of 1992. Oscar was making a nerdy pun. He then starts speaking Elvish – which Yunior recognizes as a language from Lord Of The Rings
This quirky exchange right at the beginning of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is an illustration of the particular challenges and rewards in this stage adaptation at Repertorio Espanol of Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
There’s much to delight in the vivid characters in the story, and in the several cultures they reflect — Dominican culture, immigrant culture, Comic-con culture – but for the uninitiated it requires extra attention.
And I haven’t told you the half of it: Marco Antonio Rodríguez, who wrote the adaptation and is directing it, presents it in Spanish (Its title is now “La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao.”) The Spanish of the play is shot through with Dominican regional dialect as well as the Spanglish of Dominican New Yorkers. Fans of the novel will also notice that Rodriguez takes liberties with the plot. Unlike the novel, the play largely focuses on Oscar, rather than his sister and mother or the long-reigning DR dictator Rafael Trujillo, and even so begins with Oscar in college rather than starting in his childhood.
But enough with the caveats. English supertitles (for the Spanish, not the Elvish) are projected onto the stage, which makes enough of the playful, punful language (such as the dialogue I quoted above) accessible so that non Spanish speakers don’t feel left out. And the acting of the seven-member cast expertly brings the comedy to the fore. Edgar Sebastian is equal parts awkward and enthusiastic, brainy and dopey, as Oscar the sci-fi fanatic and aspiring writer who falls hopelessly in love with one woman after another (each portrayed by Belange Rodriguez) who never reciprocate — until one does, which leads to his undoing. As Yunior, Mario Peguero is like Abbott to Sebastian’s Costello, long-suffering (or at least annoyed) taller straight man. Altragracia “ANova” Nova is comically in-your-face as Lola, Oscar’s protective sister, (kudos to costume designer Leni Mendez, for helping to make her explosive persona available at a glance.), She becomes Yunior’s instant object of obsession as soon as Oscar introduces them (Yes, I know, it’s different in the novel.) Alfonso Rey is suitably menacing in the thankless roles of several villains, Arisleyda Lombert is the hilariously flamboyant grandmother La Inca back home, and Maite Bonilla is a standout as Beli, Oscar and Lola’s hardworking single mother who when we first meet her is intolerant, argumentative, and suffering from bone cancer – and yet the actress manages to make us laugh.
There is a brief flashback to Beli’s horrid childhood in DR, but the play opts largely for comedy over trying to capture the density, variety and richness of the novel. This means that even something as resonant in the novel as the curse on the family – called Fukú — which author Diaz rather brilliantly ties to the history of oppression of the Dominican people, leads in the play to a punchline. Oscar explains the curse to Yunior as having come from Africa “carried in the screams of the enslaved. The death bane of the Taínos.”
“You wanna know the real death bane of the Taínos?” Yunior replies. “ ¡Cuchifrito! Heart attacks and diabetes left and right.”
But what stage adaptation has ever captured the complex layers of a novel? If the melodramatic developments in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” are overshadowed by the comedy, you could do worse than a well-acted, warmhearted entertainment that transcends language even as it plays with it.
La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao./The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Written and directed by Marco Antonio Rodríguez based on the novel by Junot Diaz
Scenic design by Melanie May, lighting design by Ines Zapata, sound design by Nathan Leigh, costume design by Leni Mendez, supertitles by Sara Buitrago, diction instructor Rosie Berrido, dialect instructor Ylanny Rodriguez
Cast: Edgar Sebastian Martínez, Mario Peguero, Altagracia ‘ANOVA’ Nova, Maite Bonilla, Arisleyda Lombert, Belange Rodríguez and Alfonso Rey.