War has been depicted in countless plays and movies. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” which opened this weekend in the Los Angeles area, presents a multigenerational family legacy of silent stoicism in the face of war’s horrors and haunting aftermath. It also illustrates the impact of trying to follow in a parent’s footstep, when the father never really related the road he walked, by exploring the legacy of silence that often shrouds military families.
The production at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre is the first of Hudes’ Elliot Trilogy plays appearing in Southern California this winter. This is the first time all three have been staged at the same time in the same city. “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” will be at that Culver City theater through February 25. Her Pulitzer prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is in previews now at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles and will run through March 11. Finally, “The Happiest Song Plays Last” will begin performances February 17 and run through March 19 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, also located downtown.
The Fugue Concept
“Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” models its plot on the musical structure. In a fugue, a melody is introduced by one voice or instrument, taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts. The quartet of characters — Elliot, his father, his mother, and his grandfather – is part of a Puerto Rican family. All have served in a war and carry the fragments physically and/or mentally of their traumatic experiences. Following the fugue metaphor, they weave their stories of war around each other’s stories. Characters often narrate other’s tales, which helps since time is not chronological in the play and it bounces between the wars in Korean, Vietnam and Iraq.
Hudes uses the fugue to weave her tale and her educational background. Before getting a master’s degree in playwriting from Brown University, she studied music at Yale University undergraduate. While interesting to watch, the format takes getting used to, since the characters rarely talk to each other. There are staccato notes and snippets of monologue that initially challenges the audience to identify the underlying melody of a family haunted by similar backgrounds and experiences. The quartet rarely plays together, which keeps the audience and each other at a distance.
The Plot and Players
Elliot Ortiz (Peter Mendoza), a recent high school graduate, grapples with the legacy of his family’s military tradition and the silent reality of their service. Without warning family members, he enlists in the Marines and is eventually sent to Iraq. Later, he realizes the common experience across generations, “It’s scary how much was the same.” Elliot is disturbed by nightmares reliving “all the shit you can’t erase.”
His father (the affecting Jason Manuel Olazabál) was injured in Vietnam. During the performance, his character encompasses the resentment that his father did not tell him what to really expect and guilt that his son is now enduring similar hardships.While recuperating, he met Elliot’s mother, Ginny (Caro Zeller), who served as a nurse in the war. Zeller carries much of the emotional weight caring for the three generations of post-traumatic stress disorder and physically wounded Ortiz men. She relates advice on how nurses deal with scared and scarred patients in the war zone. Ginny explains she doesn’t look at his wound, but rather looks “at him like he’s the man of your dreams.”
Lastly, there is Elliot’s elderly grandpop (Rubén Garfias), who cannot recall much due to Alzheimer’s. His fleeting memories of the Korean War do not involve his gun; they involve his flute that he regularly played during his tour of duty. What he remembers most is that, “in Korea, my platoon fell in love with Bach…. Flute is very soothing after the bombs settle down.” The old man acknowledges that Elliot always wanted to know about life in the service, but he told him “all I know is what music I was playing at the time.”
Directed by Shishir Kurup, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” offers a moving, albeit unsettling, look at the misery of war, particularly the legacy left by the “code of silence” many soldiers adopt after returning home to leave it in the past. A concise 75 minutes, with no intermission, the show intersperses its harsh realities with some comedy or, as grandpop elaborates, the need for a mix of major keys and minor keys.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Feb. 3, 2018
Center Theatre Group
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Study Guide
Photos by Craig Schwartz. Top, Caro Zeller and Jason Manuel Olazábal light up in the hospital in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Inset, L-R: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza and Jason Manuel Olazábal depicting three generations of soldiers.