Quiara Alegría Hudes’ brilliantly written Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, springs from her two worlds – that of a music degree from Yale University and a Master’s Degree in playwriting from Brown University. This union of disciplines coalesced in an absolutely riveting play that uses Bach and other great composers as a metaphor for war. Coupled with a highly stylized presentation, her writing skills are evident from the opening salvo.
(Bottom) Caro Zeller (Nurse Ginny), Rubén Garfias (Grandpop,) Jason Manuel Olazábal (Pop) and (above) Peter Mendoza (Elliot) in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue.”
Under the impeccable, intensely vivid, sharp direction by Shishir Kurup, this searing drama, sprinkled throughout with comic relief, grabs your attention from the moment you go into the theatre until the very last line of dialogue is spoken. As you enter, John Nobori’s lively sound design is playing and upstage there is a woman planting a garden. One by one the three other members of the cast quietly drift on stage carrying props and set pieces, which consist of two cots on which are placed a rifle and duffel bag, then lights dim, and the play begins.
Peter Mendoza as Elliot tells his story about combat in Iraq.
We first meet the charming 19-year-old Elliot, played by the very talented Peter Mendoza. He is a third-generation Marine, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, skillfully played by Rubén Garfias and his father, played by the talented Jason Manuel Olazábal. Wearing a Purple Heart for sustaining a painful leg wound in Iraq, this cheerful young man talks directly to the audience sharing combat details. Elliot has some choices to make. After much agony, his leg is healing nicely which would allow him to reenlist or alternatively take a low level job at a fast-food restaurant. His character is the thru-line of action and the right actor was cast for that role.
Three generations of Marines: L-R: Rubén Garfias as Grandpop, Peter Mendoza as Elliot, and Jason Manuel Olazábal as Elliot’s father.
Under Kurup’s sensitive direction, these actors give perfect performances that could be described as individual tour-de-forces as they take turns telling their poignant stories. Each member of this Puerto Rican family from Philadelphia fought in a different war – the grandfather, Korea, the father, Vietnam, and the son, just back from Iraq. These three Marines sustained serious injuries. The non-linear unfolding of their individual account is uniquely staged as they begin by breaking the fourth wall and talking about a past moment or a present moment at which point they transition from talking to the audience to continuing the dialogue within the scene – unique and fascinating stagecraft. You might be wondering how the playwright incorporated music. Beginning with the grandfather, the flute becomes almost another character as that instrument has been passed down from generation to generation and is used as a device for trying to make some sense out of the horror of war. We first see it played by grandpop. He comes in from the harsh cold Korean winter, his hands so frozen he cannot feel them. Despite that, he takes out the flute and plays Bach fugues, making a poetic connection between his bleak current location to back home in Philly. It’s a reverie that gives him comfort.
Caro Zeller as Nurse Ginny in a fun moment with her wounded patient Pop played by Jason Manuel Olazábal.
The fourth member of this excellent ensemble is Caro Zeller who plays Ginny, Elliot’s mom who was a nurse during the Vietman War and was where she met and eventually married Elliot’s father. Like his son, he sustained an agonizingly painful leg injury and there is a tender hospital scene where Nurse Ginny tries to gently massage the leg, which segues into a romantic, sweet moment. Back home, she is the glue that keeps the family together and spends time planting and caring for her garden, which is her symbolic way of keeping hope alive for the future. She also serves the family traditional food to which Elliot makes references while in battle. It is fascinating to see how the characters are interwoven and how seamlessly they intersect with each other, with the play’s dénouement ending in a powerful visual.
Rubén Garfias as the aging Grandpop (background) and Jason Manuel Olazábal as his son thinks about being back home in Philadelphia.
The balance of the technical team served this production well beginning with the Scenic Design by Sibyl Wickersheimer, Costume Design by Raquel Barreto, with special kudos to Geoff Korf’s fascinating Lighting Design who lit the actors in a most fascinating, creative way.
Rubén Garfias as Grandpop plays a Bach fugue on the flute to make some musical sense out of the war.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue does not preach. It does not take a pro or con position on the dubious legacy of war but presents the story of a family of veterans and their individual war experiences. It’s up to you to decide whether the cost of this legacy is worth the human sacrifice. Whatever your beliefs are, however, this play is non-political but rather a lyrical piece of writing married with a unique theatrical presentation. The results are a most uncommon evening of theatre and the reason why it was selected as the 2007 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama. The first in a trilogy of plays, the second play is Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Water by the Spoonful, currently on stage at the Mark Taper Forum. Look for my review next week.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue
Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232
Run: Tuesday – Friday: 8:00 pm Saturday: 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm Sunday: 1:00 pm & 6:30 pm
Closing: Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tickets: $25 – $70
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