“Fugue” is a musical term, defined as a piece in which a melody is introduced by one voice, mimicked by others, and continues on by interweaving those parts. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes as the first installment in her Elliot Trilogy, opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. The character of Elliot, a young man who enlists in the Marines just months before President George W. Bush declares war on Iraq, is based on Hudes’s cousin. The next seven weeks in Los Angeles will mark the first time all three parts of the Elliot Trilogy will be onstage at the same time in the same city. Water by the Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer winner, is in previews now at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, and The Happiest Song Plays Last begins performances February 17th at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
When Elliot (Peter Mendoza) decides to enlist, he tells no one until after he has filled out the paperwork, despite coming from a military family. His father (Jason Manuel Olazabál) fought in the Vietnam War, and met Elliot’s mother, Ginny (Caro Zeller) when she cared for him in the hospital after an injury. Elliot’s grandfather (Rubén Garfias) fought in the Korean War. Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue is a series of non-linear vignettes about the effects of war on generations of a family, told through a combination of monologues and scenes taking place over several decades.
Despite his upbringing, Elliot still finds war to be a confusing, lonely, and shocking experience. His father never really talked to him about his own time in the service, something Elliot grows frustrated by, wishing desperately they could have had that conversation before he was blindsided by the realities of war. His grandfather now has Alzheimer’s, so from him, Elliot mostly hears the same few repeated stories. Mendoza has a childlike face and matching air of naiveté that makes you understand immediately why Elliot would enlist. In addition to the examples he grew up with of men who served, he is eager to find his identity, intrigued by the structure and built-in purpose of military life. At the young age of nineteen he is sent home with a Purple Heart and an injured leg. Surprisingly, considering the severity of his injury, Elliot is given the option of returning to service after a brief recovery. During his short time home, we watch Elliot struggle to reacclimate, cope with the media attention of a hero’s welcome, and try to answer the question of who he is and what is here for him at home should he decide to not return to Iraq.
With a concise running time of 75 minutes, Elliot is emotional and effective. Directed by Shishir Kurup, no moment overstays its welcome, and the story keeps moving at an even pace, servicing all of its characters and painting both a broad picture of the experience of war and a specific portrait of one family affected by it. Moments of harsh reality are interspersed with comedy, such as the story of Ginny and her future husband’s early flirtations in the hospital. The staging is dynamic, and jumpy theatergoers will appreciate that in a play about war, no actual gunshots are used. It is a subtle and heartfelt story anchored by four deft performances, with Mendoza’s at the center. The final moment is striking, as a curtain pulls back on a part of the stage that was previously shrouded, creating a stunning backdrop as Elliot makes the next steps in his journey.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue runs at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 25th. The running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here. Elliot’s story will continue in Los Angeles in Water By the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last.