Yes, novel adaptations are cursed, and Fukú Americanus is no exception. Adapted by Sean San Jose from Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and staged by Campo Santo at Intersection for the Arts, the play is a mess -- a lovely, frustrating mess, that translated the excitement of the book, but fumbled the storytelling.
Oscar Wao thrilled American readers when it appeared in 2007 on the heels of a century of endless repetitions of the same immigrant narrative. The book was recognizably an immigrant story, yet it turned the tropes on their ears. Far from pandering to a non-Spanish-speaking readership expecting its exotica to be translated, Oscar Wao spoke the college-educated, ghetto-inflected Spang-nerd-glish its macho, comic-book-reading Dominican narrator spoke. Its metaphors came from Tolkien and The Silver Surfer. Its plot didn't follow the arc-de-triomphe of the traditional immigrant tale, but rather the melodramatic twists of a generation-spanning curse.
Oscar Wao knew what it was about, what story it was trying to tell, and how it was trying to tell it; Fukú Americanus can make no such claims. What is, in the novel, a tour-de-force braiding together of 20th century Dominican history, Caribbean/US immigration issues, three-generations of familial tragicomedy, and revenge-of-the-nerd story, becomes, in the play, messy, incongruous, and incomplete ... but also funny, exciting, culturally canny, and completely in love with its characters. The play extinguishes the brilliance of the novel -- its powerful balancing act -- but manifests, even heightens, the novel's human appeal, its abundant energy and humor, its hybrid language, and its loveable characters.
Co-directors Sean San Jose and Marc Bamuthi Joseph embody the book with an ambitious physicality: a combination of comic book tableaux, telenovela melodramatics, and chaotic modern dance. A wall painted in a grid of red and blue squares creates comic book panels against which the actors freeze in place to deliver monologues and adversarial dialogues. Several platforms move easily, stack up, or bridge one another to force and facilitate the actors in motion; when not trapped in the panel of a comic or the frame of a television set, the characters spin in a whirlwind of motion and rapid-fire happenstance. Simple costumes in black and primary or neon colors do triple duty as superhero disguises, character gestures, and period costume.
The staging doesn't always land squarely. There are times, especially during the first twenty minutes or so, when the piece isn't so much a depiction of chaos as it is chaotic itself; times when the melodrama isn't so much a knowing commentary as it is ... just loud. But these are the consequences when you take big, ambitious risks, and the mere presence of artistic ambition onstage is gratifying. It is all the more so since the risk mostly pays off. Giving talented performers layered, complex, and meaty roles is a good strategy; without exception, the performers meet every shift in tactic and texture with energy and power.
But San Jose's exceedingly problematic adaptation is the play's downfall. Sadly, an inspired production can't save a faltering script. There are multiple problems: the playwright's inability to locate the play's central story arc, among the many arcs of the novel; a basic misunderstanding of what a narrator is versus what a chorus is; how to select a protagonist, or balance the weight of the story among more than one protagonist; the various ways to satisfy the expectations your storytelling arouses in your audience; and how to end the story you've chosen.
In Oscar Wao every member of the accursed family experiences a manifestation of the Fukú in their lives. But most survive the encounter by a partially supernatural grace that preserves the bloodline for further torment. The Fukú reaches apotheosis in the death of Oscar Wao, the moment toward which all the struggle and flight tends, when the curse is finally purged. All this is clearly too much for a two-and-a-half-hour play, and the playwright would have been wise to cut out much of the incident, and perhaps even some characters. Instead, San Jose cuts out some of the main action of the book, while leaving in a myriad unimportant details in the name of conveying the book's flavor, not trusting to the often spectacular staging to do that job. The first half-hour of the piece is wasted in this manner: a twister of opinions, ideas, and explanations; telling, not showing.
Worse, instead of cutting and combining characters, San Jose adds at least one: the embodiment of the Fukú, who supposedly serves as narrator. And he's not the only one. Minor characters are kept in so as to serve double duty as character and chorus. And a major character that could have been cut -- Yunior, the book's main narrator -- isn't even introduced until the second act, where he proceeds to muddy, but not resolve, the story.
But most unforgivable of all is the play's utter failure to provide an ending. It is not merely Oscar's death that has gone AWOL. The endings to all the stories, all the individual arcs introduced, are missing. The family's run-in with Trujillo, which brings on the curse, is disappeared. The mother's failed love affair, that inspired her migration, is barely sketched. Lola's relationship with Yunior is left hanging. Oscar's coming-of-age moment never comes. In changing the title to Fukú Americanus and making that concept a character, the play has highlighted the curse as the central theme and issue of the play. As we all know, curse stories end in one of two ways: the triumph of the curse, or the breaking of the curse. Neither happens here.
Perhaps the heart of the problem is the co-directors' inability to commit to the unattractiveness of Oscar Wao, and by extension, of the entire premise and story. It might be simplistic of me, but I find that our California laid-backness often comes with an inability to reveal, much less jeer at, our own dark side. The literary Oscar finds redemption in our eyes by committing to his own nerdosity so completely that he dies horribly for it. The vibrant and energetic Left Coast Fukú Americanus understands dictatorship, immigration, and punk-rock rebellion only too well. What we don't do well is embrace our own absurdity. As Yunior (and the Fukú) tell us repeatedly, "the only way out, is in." Ultimately, the play didn't follow its own directive.
Fukú Americanus runs at Intersection for the Arts through June 21, 2009. For tickets and information visit theintersection.org.