The first play in a trilogy by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue offers a moving portrait of heroism and sacrifice through one Puerto Rican family’s three generations of enlistment. Military service is one of high stakes, and every scene in Main Street Theater’s production underscores how tenuous life at war is—for both those fighting and for those left behind.
Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue tells the story of Philadephia-native Elliot Ortiz's tour in Iraq, his father's time fighting in Vietnam, and his grandfather's participation in the Korean War. The trilogy continues with Water By the Spoonful, which recounts Elliot's experience with substance abuse once he returns from war. The final play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, finds Elliot struggling to find meaning in his post-war life. While each of these shows are standalone stories, their true power comes from watching Elliot's complete arc.
The production at Main Street Theater is really a model of efficiency in terms of movement. In a 70-minute show with no intermission, I marveled at how much time was covered and how much material was woven into such a compact performance. Rebecca Greene Udden’s deft direction, Dylan Marks’s interesting set, which consisted of documents and letters that papered the floor and a garden of potted plants encircled by red brick steps, as well as Paige A. Willson’s spot-on costumes and Yezminne Zepeda’s decade-hopping sound design, all worked together to form a cohesive whole.
And the acting is excellent. I was thrilled to watch Luis Galindo in his role as the family patriarch, Grandpop, who served in the Korean War. I was delighted to see Pamela Garcia Langton as Elliot’s army-nurse mother, Ginny, rise to the challenge of playing a role over several decades. I loved the tough and cynical (yet comic at times) Rhett Martinez play Vietnam veteran Pop, Elliot’s father. And I was especially impressed by newcomer Gerardo Velasquez's take on title role of Elliot. His launching off to war, his endurance through violent and excruciating challenges, and his connections to his father and grandfather are totally believable and quite poignant, whether these moments are comic or tragic.
Velasquez really shines in the moments when he is being interviewed by the media regarding his time in Iraq. Reporters censor his salty language (which he calls “a Marine thing”) and water down his experiences to a more palatable form for popular consumption. The result is coverage that seems more like infotainment than of hard-hitting journalism on the wages of war. And perhaps that is one of the strongest elements of this drama: the way even our most painful moments as individuals and as Americans can be transmogrified into an entertaining features story, thus subverting the seriousness of war, and by extension, the sacrifices of those who serve. No interview ever captures the fraught moments of conflict, the conditions of cold showers and uncomfortable cots, or the steeliness of the ship, both literal and figurative.
Hudes, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, studied music composition at Yale University, so it makes sense that music is an important element in the show. The playwright incorporates the word "fugue," a type of composition where multiple voices perform tonal and stylistic variations on a musical theme, into the very title of the show, thereby giving the audience an idea of what is to come. The form and structure of the play—which includes monologues, dialogues, and the reciprocal reading of letters, between two or sometimes even three people—emphasize the give and take of the fugue's musical form. And, like the musical fugues, the themes of trauma, familial bonds and deferred healing, are expressed in different words and voices by the quartet of actors onstage.
Interestingly, the Latin root of “fugue” has forms that can mean both to flee and to chase—a perfect paradoxical truth for how the soldiers onstage have all sought military service in some ways yet also must flee the ravages of that service. But the most moving use of the word in the show comes from a less common definition, where a fugue is a state of disassociation, and according to the American Heritage Dictionary, a state “usually caused by trauma, marked by sudden travel or wandering away from home and an inability to remember one’s past.” As the characters offer stage directions in a robotic manner, this definition comes into relief.
My only quibble with Elliot is that it seems indebted to other writers who also have addressed the wages of war, both physical and psychological. From Phil Klay’s National Book Award winner Redeployment to Tim O’Brien’s well-known linked semi-autobiographical narratives in The Things They Carried, there seemed to be an echoing of their insights and language—especially the listings of items that soldiers carry with them, which is a hallmark of O’Brien’s work.
Even with these similarities, Hudes’ play has a lyricism, its action unfolding more as tableau of performances than a traditional play of exposition and climax as the soldiers’ stories braid and entwine inextricably from one another. In record time, Elliot pays homage to military families from the minute their soldiers depart for war all the way through the PTSD that so often haunts them and their loved ones years later.
"Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue" runs thru Mar 1. Tickets from $36. Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com. The Elliot Trilogy continues with "Water By the Spoonful" at Stages (thru Feb 23) and Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Co.'s staged reading of "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at Main Street (Mar 6-8).