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Barzin Akhavan plays Ali, Tala Ashe plays Shar and Daniel Duque-Estrada plays Elliot in the Oregon Shakeapeare Festival's 'The Happiest Song Plays Last.' Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham

'Happiest Song' wraps Iraq vet's story

In Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” which opened Saturday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre, life is hard, even cruel. But we just might get by with a little help from our friends. Friends may be family — Elliot and Yaz, whose stories we follow, are cousins — or they may even be from another culture, like Ali, an Iraqi man who befriends ex-Marine vet Elliot.

In “The Happiest Song,” directed by Shishir Kurup, who also directed last year’s OSF production of Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” we pick up the action a couple years after the latter play’s end. Elliot (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whom we last saw suffering from PTSD and working at a Subway restaurant, has become an actor.

In a plot device that feels like an old Mickey Rooney movie, he gets his Big Break when the leading man on a location shoot (Jordan at the time of the Arab Spring) de-camps in a tiff over a haircut, and Elliot is cast in the role.

Elliot is getting to know people he earlier made war on, and the experience reopens old psychic wounds he suffered in Iraq. These wound were personified in “Water” by the ghost of a man he killed, who was played by Barzin Akhavan. This time, Akhavan plays an Iraqi man named Ali who befriends Elliot.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Yaz (Nancy Rodriguez), a music professor who enjoyed cultural opportunities denied to the working-class Elliot, has moved back to the old ‘hood in North Philadelphia. There she aims to nurture the ragged people in the Puerto Rican community even as she keeps her prestigious university post.

In “Water,” Hudes expanded the concept of family to include recovering drug addicts in an online support group. This time, family is extended to those being left behind in the cyber-world of the 21st century, represented by a homeless man named Lefty (an excellent Bruce Young), whom Yaz nurtures and cooks for.

As in “Water,” closeness of the heart need not be geographical. Elliot and Yaz’s worlds connect via cell phone calls and video calls in which the cousins tease each other affectionately from opposite sides of the world even as each moves toward another kind of hook-up. Elliot makes sparks with his co-star, Shar (Tala Ashe). Yaz finds her friendship with older man Agustin (Armando Duran), a "hibaro," or folk musician, becoming more than friendship. Agustin carries the vitality of traditional Puerto Rican culture in his heart

Designers Geoff Korf and Sibyl Wickersheimer contributed projections and video that add an up-to-the-minute feeling.

Music is important again. In “Water,” it was the dissonance in the music of John Coltrane. Here, it’s folk music provided by Joe Cruz as Musician, a spirit character unseen by the others, Duran, who sings the old songs, and composer John Nobori.

Some of the play’s best moments involve Lefty and a heartfelt performance by Young, whom one can envision spending time with the mentally ill homeless preparing the role. There is a heart-rending scene involving a wristwatch and a misapprehension on the part of Yaz.

The play refers obliquely to the 2005 incident in which U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, which itself inspired the film “Battle for Haditha,” in which Hudes’ real-life ex-Marine cousin, also named Elliot, appeared.

Hudes casts a wide net. “Water” and “Happiest” are the second and third plays of a trilogy. Each stands alone, but the trilogy is the coming-of-age story of Elliot. Yet Yaz is the one fleshed out in a depth that will stick in memory. Her tender-hearted love scene with Agustin hits an emotional note that nothing in Eliott’s story matches. This time out, his maturation process is not presented with the focus and the detail of the more intimate “Water.”

On the threshold of manhood he’s plunked back into his trauma. The dynamics of his maturation remain fuzzy. As Hudes reflects on the relationship of love and community to protest and efforts to achieve social justice, he takes a symbolic act, and joy and outrage manage an uneasy co-existence.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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