New “JJ’s Arcade” from Zach Theatre, Teatro Vivo among best family theater in Austin

 

“JJ’s Arcade” again confirms why Zach Theatre’s education department is doing the most innovative theater for families in town. Teamed up with Teatro Vivo and playwright and University of Texas alum José Casas, Zach reaffirms it’s commitment to doing bilingual theater that all children in Central Texas can see themselves within and can be understood by Spanish and nonSpanish speakers.  It’s also the first time that Zach is working at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center’s theater.

José Joaquín Hernández (Alessandro Sánchez) and Oscar Torres (Ben Bazán) do a special handshake over a new game in “JJ’s Arcade.” Kirk Tuck

The story, which was inspired by the YouTube video Caine’s Arcade, tells of sixth-grade student José Joaquín Hernandez (played by Diego Rodríguez and Alessandro Sánchez. We saw Alessandro at the performance we reviewed). Joaquín is a kid who loves to live in his dream world, which is illustrated by a fog machine and a video screen that shows us his universe. In his imagination, his mother (Martinique Duchene-Phillips), who died three months before, is still with him. He builds her a castle that looks like the Minecraft castles many in the audience build in their spare time. In his imagination, he can tell stories and words make sense to him.

Mario Hernández (Mario Mario Ramírez) and José Joaquín Hernández (Alessandro Sánchez) find common ground over a love of Plinko in “JJ’s Arcade.” Kirk Tuck

In his real world, he is living with his grieving father Mario (Mario Ramirez), who doesn’t know how to talk to his son or to handle it when Joaquín is suspended for school for fighting or the fact that Joaquín is failing because he struggles with reading. The adults in the audience will know that Joaquín has dyslexia and hasn’t received the intervention services he should be getting at school.

When he spends time in his father’s auto repair shop during his suspension, Joaquín turns cardboard boxes into arcade games. The kids in our school audience loved each time a new game would appear. They stood in their seats to better see the game. They loved watching the characters play the games and the suspense of waiting to see if the game would work and  just how many tickets the character will win.

Of course, the character that got the biggest laughs from our audiences was the sidekick, Oscar ((Ben Bazán). Oscar works in Mario’s shop and is encouraging Joaquín all along the way. While Mario wants Joaquín to concentrate on school so Joaquín won’t have to work as hard as he does, Oscar can’t wait to see what game Joaquín will come up with next.

Oscar helps Joaquín record a video for his arcade to help the kids at school believe him that he really does have an arcade. Oscar takes that commercial and gets it posted on Facebook. Of course, magic happens and a line forms around the block to play JJ’s Arcade.

In between is a lesson on how fathers and sons communicate with each other, how a father’s need for his son to be tough ignores the pain his son is feeling. It’s also a lesson in different learning styles and using your imagination.

Zach, Teatro Vivo and Casas created magic on that stage. Their characters reflect our community and feel real with real life problems. At its core, there is such heart in this play. Your kids will love it not for all that messaging. They’ll love it because Oscar is hysterical, Joaquín creates cool games and the video screen animation is how they increasingly think of their imaginations: ones that involve building castles in Minecraft and Lego-like blocks.

Casas has created a play, nurtured by Austin talent, that hopefully other theaters around the country will pick up. And while, Zach’s education department is funded by better-known stories like “Elephant &Piggie: We’re In a Play” and “Charlotte’s Web”, my hope is that the public audiences take a chance on plays like “JJ’s Arcade.”

“JJ’s Arcade.”

For ages 7 and up.

When: 7 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays except April 30, April 14-May 7. 2 p.m. April 29 sign-language-interpreted and sensory-friendly performance.

Where: Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.

Tickets: $13-$15.

Information: zachtheatre.org