Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through February 25
For so long, stories about war have belonged to men. Traditionally, military tales have been about men and told by men. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, now playing at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City, shifts these paradigms slightly.
Writer Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the book for Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights) is the storyteller here, and she unwittingly makes her presence known just by writing a complex, interesting female character. A Soldier’s Fugue is the first in the Elliot Trilogy, three plays about a young veteran of the Iraq war (the Pulitzer-winning Water by the Spoonful opens at the Taper Forum next weekend, while The Happiest Song Plays Last opens later this month at the LATC).
Structured like a fugue (a type of song), the play follows Elliot (Peter Mendoza), a young man who has just returned from his first tour in the Iraq war. His father (Jason Manuel Olazábal) and grandfather (Rubén Garfias) both served, too, in Vietnam and Korea respectively, but the men never talk with each other about their experiences. Instead, the show is told as a series of interweaving monologues, strands of the story Hudes is weaving together.
Unfortunately, with so many monologues, it’s easy to lose the thread, and it makes for a strange, dense experience at first, since the actors rarely interact with each other, despite occupying the same space. But once Grandpop, a classical music aficionado, explains what a fugue is, it all clicks: each character is a musical line that interlaces between the other stories, with the ultimate intent of providing one harmonic melody.
Under Shishir Kurup’s direction, the show doesn’t click into that harmonic melody yet. The actors are all on stage, playing their parts, but it doesn’t feel like the story is inhabiting the cast in the way the play demands. Caro Zeller, who plays Elliot’s mother (and an Army nurse herself), is the sole exception — she feels more at home on stage than her male counterparts. Perhaps this is because Hudes is adept at writing female characters, and it’s refreshing to see a female character who is more than a “wife of,” “girlfriend of,” or “mother of” the male characters; there’s plenty for Zeller to do, and she digs into her role, grounding Ginny effectively.
The same is not true of the other actors, however. Mendoza in particular feels under-explored as the title character, all surface, with little subtext. Olazábal and Garfias show moments of pathos as Elliot’s father and grandfather respectively, but their performances don’t seem to have gelled yet.
Given these weaknesses, the text of the play shines through. Hudes has a flair for poetic turns of phrase that give the show an almost literary feel at times. But while there are plenty of beautiful ideas, Hudes is also effective at evoking the horrors of war and the suspense of combat. In one early, simply staged scene, Elliot recounts the moments leading up to the first time he killed someone he thought of as a person, rather than a distant target. The language thrusts the audience into his shoes, awaiting the inevitable kill with dread and adrenaline. “Bang,” Elliot says as he squeezes the trigger of his pantomimed gun. Without props or sound effects, it’s a stark contrast to the hyperreal depictions of warfare on TV and in videogames, but all the more effective for its simplicity.
There are a few other stunning moments — but as good as they are, they can’t surmount the difficulties of the show’s presentation and structure. Hudes is telling an important, underrepresented story from America’s not-so-distant past, but the lessons are too easily lost in the show’s inconsistencies. In this Soldier’s Fugue, she plants the seeds of key ideas that deserve further exploration: the secrets families keep from each other, what drives someone to enlist, how war changes a soldier. Hopefully, these ideas will get their due in the trilogy’s other plays.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Feb. 25. Centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.