One Actor, 20 Characters in ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’

Elvis Nolasco, photo by John Ulman

Turning a book into theatre is risky. Not only are you playing with a world that readers have already created in their minds, you’re also turning language meant to be read into language made to be spoken.

Book-It Repertory Theatre has the formula down pat. But its current production, based on Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, adapted and directed by Elise Thoron for the New York-based company Literature to Life/Young Audiences New York, takes an extra step into perilous experimentation by having a single actor play more than 20 characters. It pays off.

Published in 2007, Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel tells the story of Oscar De León, a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who is socially ostracized due to his weight and his love of science fiction, superheroes and fantasy novels. Additionally, Oscar’s family has supposedly been carrying around a curse, and even the Americanized younger generation respects this traditional family belief. The two storylines weave in and out and ultimately intertwine when Oscar finds the courage to break free from his comfort zone and take the risk of loving the person he is.

Narrated by multiple characters, the book wends its way through various time periods and locations. Diaz’s vibrant language is a mix of Spanglish, teenage slang and poetic explorations of Dominican history, and it’s the lynchpin to the success of the page-to-stage translation. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even more powerful when performed out loud. Dominican actor Elvis Nolasco’s ability to slide seamlessly from character to character is absolutely breathtaking and holds audiences rapt for the entire 90-minute show.

Keeping things simple is a boon here, and all elements of this show—staging, set design, costumes and lighting—hold back in order to support Nolasco’s performance. The stage consists of three platforms, a 1980s-style fridge covered in sci-fi movie posters, and a wooden desk with two chairs. They stand in for various locations: a dorm room, an apartment, a house in the Dominican Republic. Footnotes from the novel, often cultural explanations or mini-history lessons, are signified by a change in lighting and a specific “swooshing” sound effect.

Amid the 20-plus characters that comprise Nolasco’s performance, his mainstay is Yunior, the handsome, macho Dominicano dating Oscar’s sister. Where less-skilled actors would stumble in the change between Yunior and Oscar (playing with squinted eyes, nasally voice and shrugged up shoulders to convey the kid’s mass), Nolasco glides from one to the other with ease, often jumping into other roles, such as Oscar’s hard-edged sister and quiet, insightful grandmother, along the way. Much like the set, Nolasco keeps it simple, which prevents him from veering into stereotypes. He lets the language take center stage and doesn’t overpower it with his body.

Thorton’s adaption does a solid job retaining the crucial elements of the book, but there were some important parts missing, including perspective from and story about the women of Oscar’s world. Of course, something always has to be cut when staging a novel and this adaptation makes the most narrative sense, but I also felt that there wasn’t enough time in the production to allow the audience to really connect and empathize with Oscar. He fits squarely into the overweight nerd trope, but the play doesn’t dive into his thoughts and emotions like the novel does. There’s power in this story nonetheless, and in the end Oscar’s refusal to forsake the person he’s always been is the most wondrous element of all.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao runs at Book-It through May 6.